Baidu snaps up Microsoft free agent Qi Lu to AI development team, launches new AR lab
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Qi Lu, former executive vice president of the applications and services group at Microsoft Corp., speaks during a keynote session at the Microsoft Developers Build Conference in San Francisco in 2016. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images Israel)

Can Baidu out-recruit Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Tesla in the race for artificial intelligence supremacy? They certainly seem to think so

Perhaps previewing a year of US-Chinese competitiveness, Beijing tech giant Baidu doubled down on artificial intelligence research Tuesday with the announced hire of former Microsoft Global Executive VP Dr. Qi Lu. Lu will be installed as Baidu’s new COO “effective immediately.”

“Baidu is well known as one of China’s top technology companies, and is already recognized on the global stage as a leader in AI,” Lu mentioned in the company’s announcement. “I am excited to help realize Baidu’s visionary AI strategy.”

The announcement coincides with Baidu spinning yet another research lab, this time for augmented reality (AR), out of its Institute of Deep Learning (IDL). The company’s Big Data Lab and Silicon Valley AI Lab complement the internal research portfolio and expand the reach of a technology flock that Lu will be tasked to help shepherd.

Lu is well-centered to help Baidu tap even more talent in the American market. He grew up in China and while he grabbed his BA and MA in Computer Science from Fudan University in Shanghai, he received his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. That school’s robotics department has gotten the lion’s share of academic AI attention in popular media over the last year following Uber’s self-driving car trials in the old Pennsylvania steel town and the company’s recruitment of researchers from CMU.

It also can’t hurt that he has 40 patents to his name registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

“To achieve our goals, especially in artificial intelligence, which is a key strategic focus for the next decade, we will need to continue attracting the best global talent,” said Robin Li, Baidu’s Chairman and Group CEO. “With Dr. Lu on board, we are confident that our strategy will be executed smoothly and Baidu will become a world-class technology company and global leader in AI.”

Baidu treads on US tech company territory with eye on talent centers

Can Baidu build up its AI farm system at a faster rate than American tech rivals like Microsoft and Google? (China national team in action during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images Israel)

Clearly, Lu’s time at CMU and Microsoft make him an industry intelligence asset for Baidu as they build up a farm system of machine learning and AI talent. The company has mimicked a lot of the same corporate and research community moves seen in tech titans like Google and Amazon to open-source their software and establish research centers. Baidu open-sourced its deep learning tool PaddlePaddle this past September and unveiled DeepBench as an open tool to test deep learning algorithm performance. But acting as a responsible corporate partner to the machine learning world is only half the battle.

They will also have some strong insight into Microsoft’s strategy for artificial intelligence. That strategy appears ambitious following the acquisition of University of Waterloo graduates Sam Pasupalak and Kaheer Suleman and their Montreal startup Maluuba. Maluuba has a lofty goal to achieve artificial general intelligence (AGI), or a much higher level of machine intelligence than researchers have been able to reach at this juncture in history.

“Dr. Lu possesses a wealth of leadership and management experience, and is a leading authority in the area of artificial intelligence. I am confident that Dr. Lu will make major contributions to the overall strength of our management and technology,”

Of course major corporations don’t appoint executives like baseball teams pick up players off waivers when something is missing in the lineup. This hire has likely been in the works for a while.

The company has a stacked rotation in terms of AI and ML leaders, including Baidu Chief Scientist Andrew Ng, who came on board in May 2014. Ng is a co-inventor of Google Brain and co-founder of Coursera, but he also serves as an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and runs the company’s AI team in the Bay Area. They also poached former Tesla Autopilot engineer Liang Heng of Stanford to head Baidu’s new Autonomous Driving Unit (ADU) to Sunnyvale, California when the unit opened last April.

Their investments also show a zest for new ML tech in a $22 million Series C for Dynamic Yield, the lead on a $150 million round for autonomous car-focused Velodyne LiDAR, and the lead on a $2 billion round in Uber China in January 2016. Of course, investments and acquisitions are also a way to annex talent in an industrial arms race.

Baidu is packing for 2017 and for the long haul with a big eye on prospects. Expect the company to also make some out-of-left-field acquisitions in the coming year of small research outfits (similar to Maluuba) that will give the company deep learning depth and a roadmap for the development or even incorporation of cutting-edge machine intelligence into its products and services.

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