Andrew Ng, Baidu’s Chief Scientist and the man in charge of the company’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) push, announced today he will be stepping down — a significant setback for a company that has made AI an essential part of its future.

Over the three years that Ng was in charge, Baidu grew its AI department to 1,300 people — which included a 300-person deep learning/AI research facility. One of the team’s more high-profile achievements was making Baidu a firm player in the race to commercialise autonomous vehicles.

“I am confident AI at Baidu will continue to flourish. After Baidu, I am excited to continue working toward the AI transformation of our society and the use of AI to make life better for everyone,” said Ng in a post on Medium.

In January, Baidu made a big move by bringing on former Microsoft executive Lu Qi to act as the Chief Operating Officer. He was hired because, “In particular, his experience at Microsoft and background in artificial intelligence allows him to take a more active role in operations and frees up [CEO Robin Li] to work more on strategic issues.”

Baidu’s shift towards AI is in-part a necessity as the company had a turbulent 2016. According to the South China Morning Post, the company’s market share is about a quarter of its main competition (notably Tencent and Alibaba).

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As “China’s Google”, the company built its business on advertising — a revenue source that took a serious blow last year after a young cancer patient died after following bogus medical information from a promoted site on the platform.

This is the context that has surrounded Baidu’s decision to go “all-in” on AI, which is why the departure of Ng is a big deal.

AI is the future

Ng made it clear he is not going anywhere in the development of AI. He called the technology the ‘new electricity’ in his resignation letter — saying it will impact global society in every major industry.

“As the founding lead of the Google Brain project, and more recently through my role at Baidu, I have played a role in the transformation of two leading technology companies into “AI companies.” But AI’s potential is far bigger than its impact on technology companies,” he wrote.

He said he wanted to be a leader in ushering in this transformative technology that, Ng believes, will be a solution to the ‘drudgeries’ of life.

“The industrial revolution freed humanity from much repetitive physical drudgery; I now want AI to free humanity from repetitive mental drudgery, such as driving in traffic. This work cannot be done by any single company — it will be done by the global AI community of researchers and engineers,” he said.

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While there are a large amount of people who are concerned about the impact AI will have on the jobs and livelihood of regular people, Ng remains optimistic and believes it will be the key to helping us build a ‘fantastic future’.


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