Baidu chief scientist Ng to depart in setback for AI push

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(Bloomberg) -- The chief scientist helping drive Baidu Inc.’s push into artificial intelligence is quitting the Chinese search giant, putting at risk its efforts to put AI at the center of a business revival.

Andrew Ng, a Stanford University academic who worked on deep learning at Alphabet Inc. before joining Baidu in 2014, said he’s leaving the business next month. Ng doesn’t plan to join another technology company and will seek to bring AI into sectors such as health care and education around the world.

The departure comes at a crucial point for the Beijing-based company as it attempts to revive its fortunes by embracing machine intelligence across all of its business units. His decision to leave comes after Qi Lu was hired in January as Baidu’s group president and chief operating officer with a mandate to reshape the business, whose online-ad business is under threat from rivals including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. Prior to joining, Lu was an executive at Microsoft Corp. leading efforts to develop artificial intelligence.

“It’s all very amicable,” Ng said, adding that he’d discussed the move with Baidu’s co-founder Robin Li for several months. “I’m very confident the team will thrive. In China Baidu is so far ahead and AI is not easy.”

Ng doesn’t expect his departure will derail or slow down Baidu’s AI efforts, pointing out that he’s still chief scientist until the handover at the end of April. Ng oversaw the growth of Baidu’s research team to 1,300 people scattered across research labs in Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Sunnyvale, California, a group that will increase by several hundred more this year, he has said. Of the over 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion) Baidu has spent on research and development over the past two and a half years, most has been on AI, according to Li.

But Ng was a founding father of deep learning - a stream of AI recently popularized by tech giants around the world - and the public face of Baidu’s AI efforts.

"With him there, investors and analysts got more confidence about Baidu’s AI investments since he was quite well-known in the field and at Google before," said Marie Sun, an analyst with Morningstar Investment Services. "If there’s no other well-known person from his field replacing his role, I think it could be negative news to the market."

A co-founder of web-learning firm Coursera Inc., Ng said he will reduce the amount of time he spends in China, as his wife is based in the U.S. Ng said he’s been looking at the health-care sector and is keen to help develop AI, for example, that can act as assistants for doctors or create customized pathways for education.

While Baidu hasn’t named a replacement for Ng as chief scientist, other executives are taking on some of his responsibilities. Yuanqing Lin, the head of the company’s Institute of Deep Learning, will run Baidu Research’s labs both in China and the U.S. with machine translation expert Wang Haifeng to become the new head of Baidu’s AI Group. The search provider will continue its AI efforts, employing its user data to build products that take advantage of the technology.

Baidu’s revenue growth slowed to 6 percent last year, after several years of growth ranging from 35 percent to 55 percent. The search business, which fueled Baidu’s 70.6 billion yuan in 2016 sales, is under siege from local rivals: Alibaba has taken the lead in digital advertising, according to consultancy EMarketer Inc.

Shares of Baidu have fallen 9 percent in the past 12 months.

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