EXCLUSIVE
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Artificial intelligence

Chinese search engine Sogou works on lip reading, divorce advice

China’s second largest search engine raised US$585 million in New York IPO in November, but is in no hurry to make money from new applications, says CEO

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 6:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 5:40pm

Chinese search engine Sogou is focused on perfecting the language processing skills seen as a key step towards broader artificial intelligence applications – even if that means going head to head with US leader Google in complex fields such as lip reading to instantaneous machine translation.

The Tencent- and Sohu-backed firm is taking a long-term view and is in “no rush to make money” from its latest smart human-machine query services, chief executive Wang Xiaochuan said in an interview – the first he has given since the company’s initial public offering in November.

“The value lies in helping users make decisions and recommendations. Commercialisation shouldn’t be the challenge,” said Wang. “As long as our smart system is in place, users will become more reliant on Sogou’s search services.”

Dubbed the fourth industrial revolution, technology related to artificial intelligence is expected to boost China’s economic output 26 per cent by 2030, the target date set by the central government to transform the country into a global innovation centre for AI.

Tencent-backed Sogou plans to raise US$585 million in an IPO in the US

Wang’s confidence stands in contrast to the company’s tepid stock performance – down 15 per cent from its listing price in early November. The operator of China’s second largest search engine and most popular digital input method for Chinese language characters raised US$585 million in its New York IPO in November.

“I am not concerned with the decline as it is less than a month since Sogou went public and US investors do not have enough information to fully understand our business operation,” Wang said, adding that he won’t follow the daily movements of the stock.

The company’s competitive edge comes from intelligence technology and the services enabled by them, according to the 39 year old Wang, who was a high school maths prodigy and winner of a gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Lip reading is among the technologies Sogou unveiled at the Wuzhen World Internet Conference that ended on Tuesday.

When speakers are directly facing the camera, the system can “read” inaudible speech by analysing lip movements. The technology puts the firm on par with Google, one year after Oxford University scientists launched a lip-reading system in English that was co-developed with Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence division.

Sogou is also upgrading its simultaneous interpretation system to add “emotion” to the translated voice output, Wang disclosed.

Sougou’s research on language processing is supported by the largest number of Chinese character inputs and include a daily average of more than 300 million voice entries created by its users, according to the Beijing-based company.

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Separately, health care and legal consultations are two new fields Sogou is looking at for voice-activated query services, as part of its overall research into identifying different applications where specific human-machine interaction can be applied.

However, Wang gave no specific timetable for the commercialisation of each application.

“They belong to expanded services of the search business,” he said. “They may grow to a subscriber base one day, but we are in no rush to make money [from it].”

Search engine and related advertising income account for nearly 90 per cent of Sogou’s revenue, according to the company’s prospectus.

A graduate of Tsinghua University, Wang said the development of AI is a “marathon”.

“We know for sure that in the future machines will facilitate human beings in decision making, and I hope to soon see the day when interactive search results become consulting advice.”

​Sogou is also working on improving its search answers for medical and legal advice, with the aim of moving from providing information to giving advice and eventually consulting, Wang said. 

Divorce tops the queries on Sogou for legal-related searches, followed by property disputes and accident claims, according to Wang.