On Dec. 6, 2016, thousands of translators filed into office buildings across mainland China to pore over brochures, letters, and technical manuals, all in foreign languages, painstakingly rendering their texts in Chinese characters. This marathon carried on for 15 hours a day for an entire month. Clients that supplied the material received professional-grade Chinese versions of the originals at a bargain price. But Baidu Inc., the Beijing-based company that organized the mass translation, got something potentially more valuable: millions of English-Mandarin word pairs with which to train its online translation engine.
China is infamous for its knockoffs, whether luxury handbags or web startups. But the country’s leadership seems to understand that when it comes to artificial intelligence, cheap imitations just won’t do—not when its rivals include Alphabet, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft. In February the National Development and Reform Commission appointed Baidu—often described as the Google of China—to lead a new AI lab, signaling that Beijing believes the company has the makings of a national champion in this sphere.
MIT Tech Review recently listed 13 of the smartest AI companies and ranked Baidu on top.