Baidu opened a new office in the Seattle area on Monday, giving the Beijing-based internet search giant an additional outpost in the US to expand its reach in artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud.
The new center is located in downtown Bellevue, Washington, with space for about 50 people. The team of Kitt.ai, the Seattle-based AI startup acquired by Baidu this year, will be the first users of the space.
Announcing second-quarter results that surpassed analysts’ expectations, Baidu CEO Robin Li said in July the company would focus on two strategic pillars: mobile technologies and artificial intelligence.
“We will use AI as a fundamental driver to elevate our current core business, specifically our core products of Mobile Baidu, search and feed,” Li said. “In parallel, we will continue to build out our newer AI-enabled initiatives through an open platform and ecosystem approach to capture long term economic opportunity.”
The company has expanded in recent years into areas ranging from financial services to AI and the public cloud. The new office exhibits Baidu’s grand vision for AI.
Baidu president Yaqin Zhang, who oversees the company’s US operations, sees the office as an important part of their long term strategy. The Seattle team could grow to as many as a couple hundred people, Yaqin told China Daily on the sidelines of the Seattle Biz-Tech Summit on Sept 30.
Baidu commits 15 percent of its revenue to research and development and has grown rapidly in China. Zhang said Baidu now has more than 2,000 people in its AI group, researching concepts like computer vision, speech recognition, deep learning and natural language understanding.
Of all the potential advances in AI, Zhang thinks autonomous cars are the closest to reality. Last month, the company teamed up with Microsoft for the $1.5 billion “Apollo Fund” to invest in autonomous driving projects over the next three years.
Zhang said the Seattle area was a great place to build out a top-notch AI operation.
“Amazon and Microsoft are quality anchors and true believers in the power of AI. In addition, the area has a strong roster of AI startups,” Zhang said at the Geekwire Summit 2017, which opened in Seattle on Oct 9.
With the new office, Baidu seeks to tap into the pool of engineering talent from the University of Washington and tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon and many top startups.
“Baidu’s presence in the Seattle area is great for us as a region,” said University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair at the Paul Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. He thinks the region is not only “the world center of the cloud,” but also a major center of AI, with Microsoft, the UW, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and others true believers in AI nearby.
Baidu also recently signed on as an industry consortium partner in the Global Innovation Exchange, a technology institute in Bellevue launched by the University of Washington and China’s Tsinghua University.
Zhang said that for years, the US was the standard, and China primarily followed American innovations. “But as mobile technology has become the dominant building block, China has excelled in areas like mobile pay,” he said.
Zhang also thinks China has structural advantages in the AI Era, including the national priority given to AI by the government.
In July, China’s State Council issued guidelines on developing AI inside the country and set a goal of becoming a global AI innovation center by 2030. The total output value of AI industries is expected to surpass 1 trillion yuan ($147.80 billion).
The council encouraged the creation of open-source computing platforms and training more AI professionals and scientists. The guidelines said the government would invest in qualified AI projects and encourage private capital investment.
“We are now entering a new era of AI and I think China can lead in technology and R&D together with the US,” Zhang said. “I have a vision of China and the US becoming the twin engines of innovation over the next 10 years.”
Prior to the new Seattle office, Baidu had just opened a second research and development lab in Silicon Valley. The 36,000-square-foot building in Sunnyvale will be home to up to 150 engineers working on Baidu’s self-driving car platform, Apollo, with engineers focused on internet security, the company said in a statement.
The company opened its first Silicon Valley outpost in 2011, and its first Silicon Valley-based R&D lab in 2014. That initial lab now employs 200 people who will continue to focus on AI and data centers.
“Opening a second site is a natural progression as our teams grow and our recruiting efforts expand in the US,” Zhang said.