Artificial Intelligence


Baidu’s chief scientist resigns, in a setback for company’s AI push

Andrew Ng, the Stanford University academic and former head of Google Brain, said he’ll be leaving Baidu next month, after three years on the job leading the search operator’s artificial intelligence research.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 1:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 11:46pm

Andrew Ng, the chief scientist of China’s dominant Internet search engine operator, said on Wednesday he will be resigning from Baidu Inc next month, in a move that could set back the company’s reliance on artificial intelligence as the centrepiece of its business revival programme.

“The industrial revolution freed humanity from much repetitive physical drudgery,” Ng wrote in a blog post announcing his intention to step down, entitled “Opening a new chapter of my work on AI” on the publishing platform Medium. “I now want AI to free humanity from repetitive mental drudgery, such as driving in traffic.”

Ng’s departure comes at a critical time for founder Robin Li Yanhong, as he tries to recast Baidu as an AI-powered technology company, after 2016 revenue growth slowed for the first time since his company’s establishment in 2000 to a single digit.

Baidu’s advertising revenue slowed due to the Chinese government’s tightened regulations, after more than a decade of growing between 35 per cent and 55 per cent every year. Baidu’s search, the cornerstone of the company’s 70.5 billion yuan (US$10.2 billion) of revenue last year, is also under threat as local competitors have been gaining market share.

To remake itself, Baidu is pushing hard into AI, investing in driverless vehicles, machine learning and competing in AI-powered games similar to Google’s AlphaGo.

The task of spearheading all these fell to Ng, a Stanford University academic born in the UK but brought up in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Ng is the foremost expert on deep learning, a sub discipline of AI. Since joining Baidu in 2014, Ng has expanded the company’s AI group to approximately 1,300 people.

The vision by Li and Ng is to use AI not merely to power Baidu’s existing businesses, including advertising, maps, takeout delivery, and voice-activated search, but also develop new lines of business including autonomous driving and the DuerOS Conversational Computing platform.

In January, Baidu hired former Microsoft executive Lu Qi, a leading AI expert, as group president and chief operating officer, giving the software industry veteran oversight over all aspects of Baidu’s business from sales to technology development.

Following Ng’s blog post announcement, Baidu on Wednesday appointed its vice-president Wang Haifeng to be the new head of AI Group. Wang joined Baidu in 2010 and was the only Chinese who served as a president of the Association for Computational Linguistics, a US-based premier international scientific and professional society for people working on computational problems involving human language.

Still, the absence of Ng “could have some negative impact on Baidu’s AI effort,” said Daiwa Securities’ analyst John Choi, who will maintain his “hold” recommendation on the stock. “Andrew is a world class scholar in AI and is well regarded in the industry. Despite Baidu having one of the strongest AI research team in the industry, his departure definitely could have some implications to their AI push.”

Baidu’s shares fell 2.7 per cent overnight in US trading to US$171.40 before Ng wrote about his resignation, the lowest since January 3.

The resignation makes Ng the second high-profile departure this year following the January resignation of Hugo Barra from Xiaomi, one of China’s largest smartphone makers. Barra has left the Beijing-based Xiaomi for Facebook, citing health reasons.

Ng spent about 60 per cent of his time last year at Baidu’s labs in the US, making Beijing’s notorious air pollution an unlikely cause of his sudden departure, according to a person familiar with this matter.

Ng probably saw a “golden opportunity” to become an entrepreneur, said IDC China managing director Kitty Fok.

“I hear he wants to start his own company,” Fok said. “It’s perfect timing for him because he has the expertise, he’s well known in his field, and interest is high for innovative tech start-ups.”

Fok said she would not be surprised if Baidu, Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group would be interested in investing in Ng’s potential new AI enterprise.

From stopping cyberattacks to operating autonomous vehicles to visually searching through a wine database, more than 550 start-ups using AI as a core part of their products raised US$5 billion in funding last year, according to venture capital database service CB Insights. About 61.7 per cent of those deals were in the United States.

Ng said he will work on AI himself and will explore new ways to support those “in the global AI community to work together to bring AI-powered society to fruition.”

“This work cannot be done by any single company — it will be done by the global AI community of researchers and engineers,” he wrote.

Still, the resignation stings in more ways than one. Ng is one of the highest profile scientists Baidu has ever attracted from Silicon Valley, and the face of the company’s AI efforts around the world.

Li, who holds a seat on China’s political advisory body, has spoken in numerous occasions calling for Beijing’s government to relax immigration rules to attract Silicon Valley tech talent who may be put off by Donald Trump’s immigration policies. And Baidu will kick off its first ever overseas campus recruitment in the US next week.

Still, the parting of ways appears to be amicable.

“Andrew Ng joined Baidu with a shared goal, to improve life through AI. Today, that goal remains. Thank you, and all the best!” the Nasdaq-listed Baidu said on Twitter.

With reporting by Bien Perez in Hong Kong.