Scott Chernis/Re:Work

American Internet companies love flaunting their far-flung research projects: Google has its self-driving cars (among other things), Amazon has its delivery drones, and Facebook has the virtual reality company Oculus Rift. These projects are far outside the mainline business the company does, but they represent the ethos of these corporations as cutting edge companies that reach for and define the future.

But what about Baidu, the Chinese Internet search giant that's often called the Google of China? The man tasked with setting Baidu's research agenda is Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu US, and the head of the company's research wing in Silicon Valley. Ng made his name teaching artificial intelligence as a Stanford professor, and helping popularize the suite of influential AI techniques known as deep learning while founding the Google Brain project.

I spoke with him earlier this week as part of the Diane L. Morris lecture series, co-sponsored by The Aspen Institute. As we were sitting backstage, I wanted to know why I hadn't heard about more moonshot-type projects out of Baidu. One obvious example would be a self-driving car project, especially considering that Ng himself worked on autonomous vehicles at Stanford with Adam Coates, whom he brought with him to Baidu. So, I asked, is Baidu making a self-driving car?

"That one I don't have a nice simple answer to," Ng told me. "We're exploring. We're developing research prototypes."

But that was all he would say. He didn't mention other projects or point to other examples of Baidu's wild creativity or innovativeness, as one might expect from a Googler or someone at Microsoft Research. And so I said, all these American Internet companies are doing this stuff and talking about this stuff. Why isn't Baidu?

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"The Chinese Internet is very different than the US one," Ng explained. "In the US, we search for a movie ticket and Google or Bing could send you to Fandango and off you go. In China, that website we could send you to, it doesn’t exist. We have to build it ourselves. If you buy a movie ticket on Baidu, we have integrated with many movie theaters, so you can buy a ticket and even select a seat—which is something you can’t even do in the United States."

Google is building ever-more functionality right into the search engine—say flight booking or loan calculators—but even if Google didn't, dozens of other companies would (and do) build services Google could point you to. If Baidu wants certain types of Internet to exist to improve the user experience, it needs to make that Internet. "Because the Chinese Internet ecosystem is less developed, there’s a greater burden on search engine," he said.

That's been baked into the research DNA of the company, and it's clearly part of how the company explains its own success in fending off Google (before Google officially pulled out of China). "Even the early rise of Baidu, there just weren’t a lot of web pages in Chinese. So we built our own version of a question answering site like Quora. (We predated Quora, they came much later.) And we built our own version of Wikipedia, just so there was something to send users to," Ng explained. "That’s why when Google and Baidu were competing. Very often, Google searches resulted in links to Baidu."

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Fast-forward to today, when search, especially in China, usually happens on a phone: Baidu is letting users buy things like those movie tickets without ever leaving the Baidu app. Search used to be about connecting people with information, but "in the mobile age, search will connect people with services," said Baidu founder Robin Li at an event to announce Ng's hire in May. "That also opens up a lot of possibilities."

Ng's team is working on one big one: near-perfect voice recognition to power the interfaces of the next generation of mobile devices and services.

So, for now, while American Internet companies are launching Internet balloons and flying autonomous airplanes around Australia and sending sensor-laden cars crisscrossing California, the 15-year-old company will be quietly building Internet, that other Internet, the one 1.3 billion people will eventually use and that'll be synonymous with Baidu.

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Daniela Hernandez contributed reporting.