Six Steps to Mastering the Future

Baidu’s president says businesses are sowing the seeds today for a brave new — and better — world.

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Leslye Smith

Think the last 20 years have been one big blur as PCs morphed into mobile devices and data migrated to the cloud? “We are moving beyond artificial intelligence, beyond the cloud. Disruption on an order of magnitude won’t happen in the next two years or probably the next five, but it’s happening as we speak. It will be hugely disruptive.”

So predicted Ya-Qin Zhang, president of Baidu, China’s largest and the world’s second largest search engine — and one of the country’s famous trio of tech powerhouses collectively referred to as BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent).

Addressing the Chazen Institute-sponsored Sir Gordon Wu Distinguished Speaker Forum in early October, Zhang, who oversees Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, Emerging Business Unit, and Technology Group, said his company spends 15 percent to 20 percent of revenues on research. He outlined six trends making up “The Now and the Future of Innovation and R&D.”

1. The horizon is getting closer. No question that the scope of search is evolving as hundreds of millions of PCs give way to billions of mobile devices. Zhang divides the world of the Internet into three stages (so far):

  • The 1.0 generation launched in circa 2006 was the consumer era, where the physical world was digitized into information for general access.
  • Since about 2016, AI and new ways to generate and analyze big data have specialized in solving enterprise problems for businesses and brought about the 2.0 generation.
  • The 3.0 iteration is poised to bring about advanced manufacturing, blockchain supply chains and robotics.

2. Internet search companies require not just new technology going forward, but a new business model. As software rebalances power from user-directed search to business-supplied data that can pinpoint specific consumers through behavior and geography, the job of the search engines is gradually shifting. Even as they continue to generate high margins, companies such as Baidu and Google are widening their purview to adjacent lines of business while keeping their core business relevant.

 “Advertising will continue to grow, but ads will be hard to deliver through voice,” said Zhang. “We will need to monetize our business through other services such as corporate consulting. The real strength of search companies,” he adds, “is analytics.”

3. The future of the car is software. The corollary: the future of software companies is the car. “Driverless cars require multiple technologies, many of which — machine learning, supervised learning, algorithm technology — are variations of the technologies that Baidu and other search companies have developed,” said Zhang.

Zhang puts mainstream acceptance of autonomous vehicles 20 years down the road — “certainly not tomorrow or in two years,” as society must first build infrastructure such as road sensors, and consumers must overcome their suspicions of a car that drives itself. But each year, manufacturers are incorporating additional autonomous technologies into new models, including valet parking, collision avoidance systems and use of cameras.

4. Lines of competition and cooperation are blurring. Last year, Baidu decided to open its autonomous software platform to other vendors and began partnering with near-competitors such as Microsoft. Its autonomous driving division also created the $1.52 billion Apollo Fund to invest in startups and projects that use its technologies. Noting that “more than 100 projects with a combined worth of over 10 billion RMB will use the Apollo Fund,” Baidu’s website calls its partnerships “the world’s most comprehensive autonomous driving ecosystem.”

5. Smart City projects will bring about a better world, especially in China. Through use of electronic data collection and Internet-of-Things connected devices, utilities will deliver power efficiently, schools and libraries will extend their learning tools, traffic will be routed optimally and law enforcement and health management will better interact with citizens. Designed for real-time responses, city services will, theoretically at least, be better equipped to cut costs, reduce pollution, decrease congestion and respond to challenges.

Although the smart city movement is global, its state-directed approach virtually assures China will get there sooner. “We were late to the game in adopting cloud technology and business applications of the net,” said Zhang. “But China is working to change the whole architecture of the city over the next 20 years.”

The South China Morning Post indicates nearly 300 cities and regions throughout China (including Xinjian, Shanghai and Nanjing) are currently incorporating smart-city infrastructure, driven by cloud-based data and AI. Although initiatives address health care and security concerns, driverless transportation is getting the biggest play.

“Autonomous transportation will be safer — 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error,” said Zhang. “It will reduce pollution and increase efficiency.”

6. Students and workers can prepare for the future. “What you are learning today may be irrelevant in the future,” Zhang warned Columbia’s MBA students. But he praised the school’s multidiscipline approach as a great foundation for lifelong learning experiences. Other advice: Work to keep passion in your career. Be articulate. And “make yourself different,” said Zhang.

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