Little known outside China, the Chinese search engine Baidu scored a coup earlier this year when it hired Andrew Ng to be chief scientist and open a new artificial intelligence lab in Silicon Valley. Ng, a Stanford computer science professor who headed the Google Brain AI project and then cofounded the online education startup Coursera, is the foundation for Baidu’s plan to transform itself into a global power.
In two wide-ranging conversations at Baidu’s still mostly empty Silicon Valley Artificial Intelligence Lab in Sunnyvale, adjacent to the rocket scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Ng and his lab chief Adam Coates recently outlined their plans at Baidu and their vision of what AI can accomplish. That, as I outlined in a story on those plans, includes everything from improved speech recognition to much smarter robots to truly intelligent personal assistants.
Ng, who speaks in an extraordinarily gentle voice that compels close attention by the listener, seems to realize how much he has to prove, both vs. fast-rising Chinese rivals such as soon-to-go-public Alibaba and global forces such as Google and Facebook that are also betting big on AI, in particular the fast-emerging branch of AI called deep learning. Even before being asked, Ng sought to quash what he called the “stereotype” of Chinese companies as mere copycats of U.S. and other technology companies.
In Baidu’s case, at least, the stereotype may be superficial. But it also seems clear that Ng’s hiring is part of an attempt by Baidu, often called “China’s Google,” to create world-beating technologies that will elevate it to the top tier of global innovators. In this edited version of the interview, he reveals plenty of details about how he plans to help make that happen.
Q: How did you get interested in artificial intelligence?
A: I just thought making machines intelligent was the coolest thing you could do. I had a summer internship in AI in high school, writing neural networks at National University of Singapore–early versions of deep learning algorithms. I thought it was amazing you could write software that would learn by itself and make predictions.
If we can make computers more intelligent–and I want to be careful of AI hype–and understand the world and the environment better, it can make life so much better for many of us. Just as the Industrial Revolution freed up a lot of humanity from physical drudgery, I think AI has the potential to free up humanity from a lot of the mental drudgery. …