Chinese search engine Sogou sees future in legal, health queries
China’s No 2 search engine believes the shift to query-based search could enable it to gain ground on market leader Baidu, especially in the areas of health care and legal services
Wang Xiaochuan, CEO of Beijing-based search engine operator Sogou, believes that the nature of internet search is undergoing a seismic shift, one that could catapult his company from also-ran to market leader.
Instead of scrolling through page after page of search results and trying to figure out which information to trust, consumers have come to expect and demand direct answers to their queries. In that context, search engines have to be able to think on behalf of humans and play a more active role in facilitating day-to-day decision-making, from where to eat to which doctor to consult.
Declaring keyword-based search “backward”, Wang said advancements in technology have made it possible to move into a query-based era, which comes “more naturally” to human instinct. “The only reason we have been using keywords is because technology was not advanced enough,” he said.
Speaking to the South China Morning Post in a recent interview in Beijing, Wang, who turns 40 in October, cuts a relaxed figure, dressed in a white shirt, untucked, and no tie. He claims not to worry over Sogou’s share price, which is trading below its IPO price when it listed on the New York Stock Exchange last November. Investors have a “winner-takes-all” mentality when it comes to valuing search companies that underestimates the advances Sogou has made in new areas such as hardware and smart-query services, he said.
Sogou is a distant second with 18 per cent of the Chinese search market, trailing behind Baidu which has more than 70 per cent. Baidu, also based in Beijing, had consolidated its leadership after Google exited China in 2008.
Still, Wang is confident that Sogou’s proprietary technology in natural language processing – a branch of artificial intelligence that deals with how computers understand and interpret human language – stands the company in good stead as more queries are made by voice.
Sogou operates China’s fourth-most widely used mobile application, a method for inputting Chinese voice search that handles more than 300 million queries a day. The company also showed its simultaneous machine translation service at the 2016 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, about 18 months ahead of the version developed by its investor and strategic partner, Tencent Holdings. The company has placed first in a global machine-translation competition that evaluates the ability of a machine to generate human-like responses to text queries.
To bring its voice recognition, translation and transcribing capabilities to the broader public, Sogou has branched out into hardware. On May 15 the company introduced an artificial intelligence-powered, portable translation device it calls the Sogou Smart Recording Translator, retailing at 398 yuan (US$62) in China, with 30,000 sold so far.
The device supports the recording, transcription, translation and interpretation of both real-time and recorded conversations to and from 18 different languages, including Chinese, English, German, Arabic and Russian. The device can transcribe Chinese recordings at a rate of 400 words per minute and has a voice recognition accuracy rate of 97 per cent, according to specifications from the company. Sogou introduced its first translation hardware product in March, called the Travel Translator.
“Sogou is not a hardware company, but we have to stay close to users,” Wang said. “Users are starting to have voice-interactive demand, so we will just follow where they are going.”
Language is integral to cultural identity and having the necessary hardware and software to translate between languages could also help extend China’s soft power, Wang said, citing the example of how Chinese scientific researchers now have to struggle with writing their papers in English. Overseas students can also concentrate on lectures rather than worry about taking down notes and translating from a non-native language, he said.
Chinese companies have been investing in AI technology as the country seeks to harness the economic potential of what has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution. To that end, China’s government has set itself a target to become a global AI innovation centre by 2030.
Baidu is the clear market leader with a more rounded ecosystem for AI applications while Sogou’s focus is on its voice recognition technologies, according to Sun Mengqi, an analyst with Bank of Communication International Holdings.
“[Sogou] is expected to release more hardware products targeting mass consumers to increase the capability of smart interaction related research and services,” she said.
Wang, a gold-medal winner at the International Mathematical Olympiad, is known in China’s tech circles as one of the “brainy” bachelors. He gained some notoriety after he vowed not to get married until his company was listed. The computer science and engineering graduate from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University used to be the chief technology officer at Sohu.com Inc, one of China’s earlier leading internet portals. He has led Sogou since 2004, building the company from an in-house incubator project into a publicly traded firm with 2,800 employees, about 70 per cent of whom are involved in technology. The company turned a profit in 2016 and doubled its net income last year.
Sogou also benefits from the backing of Tencent Holdings, the Shenzhen-based internet giant that operates WeChat, the super-app that has become a staple for many of its 1 billion users. The partnership with Tencent has allowed Sogou to gain market share from Baidu as the company has exclusive access to WeChat’s public accounts, Wang said. Sogou has also invested in Zhihu.com, a Chinese version of Quora, to gain its content.
Wang said Sogou will focus on health care and legal issues for smart-query services as the two are among the fields that are ripe for veering away from traditional keyword-based search. The company is working with thousands of doctors and lawyers to create a smart-query platform that users can consult for medical and legal advice.
When the system can give you answers instead of pages of search results, that is “when it will become your private doctor and lawyer”, Wang said. “One day we will charge users for the services, but there’s still some way to go. We are in no rush to make money from it.”
Asked if the company is working on so-called moonshots, Wang said Sogou’s team of researchers is involved in experimental technologies including lip-reading and the replication of voice, handwriting, and emotional tone in translation so it sounds more human.
“Our machine can read 60 per cent of your lip movements, or 90 per cent if your sentence is long enough,” Wang said. “You will be able to mimic Jay Chou’s voice”, he said, referring to a popular Mandarin-pop star. But he is realistic that technology needs time to mature and be ready for widespread application.
“Most companies wait for AI to commercialise because they have drawn some very ‘sexy’ pies,” he said. “But our style is different. Sogou has always been down to earth.”