“Our rivals don’t buy technology companies. They buy products, but not companies,” claims Baidu CEO Robin Li as his company announces its acquisition of natural language processing company Kitt.ai at the Create 2017 Baidu AI Developers Conference in Beijing.

Welcome to Baidu Create (Image credit: TechNode)
Welcome to Baidu Create (Image credit: TechNode)

Kitt.ai has “wake” technology—algorithms that let devices be programmed to wake up and start listening to human voices when prompted with a keyword—that is crucial to Baidu’s “wake up” plans for making its AI operating DuerOS fully compatible with the IoT. As general manager of the Baidu DuerOS platform, Jing Kun, said at the conference, “If we want to wake up everything, it has to be listening.” As Jing explained, “Our competitors can listen, but they don’t understand.” He identified the three key steps for a device to be able to have natural conversations with human and “listen,” “understand,” and “fulfill.” DuerOS already has voice recognition accuracy of 97% and the company is also strong in “understanding” with its masses of data and keyword queries, according to Jing.

The Kitt.ai website has already been updated with the Baidu logo (Image credit: Baidu Kitt.ai)
The Kitt.ai website has already been updated with the Baidu logo (Image credit: Baidu Kitt.ai)

Kitt.ai’s Founder and CEO Chen Guoguo was promptly summoned on stage. He gave a demo of Snow Boy, the Seattle-based company’s wake recognition software that compresses its coding so it can be used on almost anything. Chen taught a Mac laptop to wake up if it heard “Jing Kun, ni hao!” (“Hello, Jing Kun!”) being called and explained how the system works with any programming language and is compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. The company has previously received investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund.

DuerOS Developer Kits

Jing also announced the release of DuerOS compatible kits, chipsets of varying sizes and capabilities that are now available to developers via applying through the DuerOS website. The entire DuerOS system and Baidu’s data are available free of charge to developers, covering everything from smart home devices to encyclopedia interfaces.

DuerOS developer kits available via the platform's website (Image credit: Baidu)
DuerOS developer kits available via the platform’s website (Image credit: Baidu)

Jing whipped the smallest smartchip out of his back pocket and held it next to an RMB 1 coin to show off its tiny dimensions. “Just add a microphone and speakers and you can make your appliances talk,” said Jing.

DuerOS compatible with Alexa—in 60 seconds

US-made products can hope for better access to the China market now that DuerOS can integrate with hardware such as Amazon’s Alexa speaker. DuerOS Head Engineer Luo Xin demonstrated that just 17 lines of code were needed to link the operating system to a speaker and the whole thing took him a minute. “This used to take a team of five around six months of debugging to achieve,” said Luo.

Developers can also download this code from the DuerOS website.

LEGO is hoping for more collaboration

As a heartwarming aside, conference goers were shown a video of a Du Zhipeng who had written to Baidu for help in making a robot toy for his nephew that would respond to voice command. With a bit of support, he built a Lego toy with a DuerOS chipset inside and was whisked on stage with his nephew and Aman Wang, VP of marketing for Lego China.

Wang said she hoped that there would be more examples of collaboration and that “We’re happy and excited to see the robot built by Mr Du and that it’s a completely different kind of toy.”

Baidu for the future of China

Baidu CEO Robin Li made some bold claims during his appearance on stage. The new slogan for Baidu is “Use technology to make a complicated world simpler.” “Developers have the greatest power in the development of human civilization,” was one.

"Apollo is China's" (Image credit: TechNode)
“Apollo is China’s” (Image credit: TechNode)

He claimed China’s historic closing to the world was not the right approach and ended the keynote speeches with his call to the thousands of developers: “Open beats closed—let’s create a new world together!”

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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