Baidu open Deep Learning Artificial Intelligence Lab in Silicon Valley

In late January, word arrived that the Chinese search giant was setting up a research lab dedicated to “deep learning” — an emerging computer science field that seeks to mimic the human brain with hardware and software — and as it turns out, this lab includes an operation here in Silicon Valley, not far from Apple headquarters, in addition to a facility back in China. The company just hired its first researcher in Cupertino, with plans to bring in several more by the end of the year.

Baidu calls its lab The Institute of Deep Learning, or IDL. Much like Google and Apple and others, the company is exploring computer systems that can learn in much the same way people do. “We have a really big dream of using deep learning to simulate the functionality, the power, the intelligence of the human brain,” says Kai Yu, who leads Baidu’s speech- and image-recognition search team and just recently made the trip to Cupertino to hire that first researcher. “We are making progress day by day.” Kai Yu, deputy engineering director of Baidu, has a webpage and a list of publications.

In the eyes of CEO Robin Li, Baidu IDL’s goal is to become the “AT & T-Bell labs, Xerox PARC this first-class research institutions”. If, as Robin Li depicted, this will be the new “Microsoft Asia NARL an important impact on the field of the smart technology. Baidu overall community will benefit from Deep Learning technology advancement with improved search and interface infrastructure.

Baidu first opened its Cupertino office about a year ago, bringing in various other employees before its big move into deep learning.

In the ’90s and onto the 2000s, deep learning research was at a low ebb. The artificial intelligence community moved toward systems that solved problems by crunching massive amounts of data, rather than trying to build “neural networks” that mimicked the subtler aspects of the human brain. Google’s search engine was a prime example of system that took a short-cut around deep learning, and the American search giant is using a similar approach with its self-driving cars. But now, deep learning research is coming back into favor, and Google is among those driving the field forward.

Google recently hired Geoffrey Hinton, the Godfather of deep learning, after some prodding from Stanford’s Andrew Ng, another power-player in the field, and many other companies are exploring the same area. IBM has long worked towards a computer model of the human brain. Apple now uses deep learning techniques in the iPhone’s Siri voice recognition system. And Google has worked similar concepts into its own voice recognition system as well as Google Street View.

Baidu’s decision to build an entire research lab dedicated to deep learning “is a bit of bold move,” says New York University’s Yann LeCun, a pioneer in the field, pointing out that the technology still has such a long way to go. But the IDL, he says, could be a way for Baidu to attract top talent and let creative engineers explore all sorts of blue-sky innovations — stuff akin to Google Glass and other project gestated at Google’s secretive X Lab.

In fact, one of Yu’s researchers is working on Baidu Eye, which many have called a Google Glass knock-off. But for now, Yu says, the lab’s main priority is the exploration of deep learning algorithms. “We want to be focused,” he says.

In November, Baidu released its first voice search service based on deep learning, and it claims the tool has reduced errors by about 30 percent. As Google and Apple have also seen, these improvements can change the way people interact with technology and how often they use it. When voice and image search services work like they’re supposed to, we needn’t fiddle with the teeny keyboards and small displays on mobile devices.

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