Baidu enters the AI Assistant fray with DuerOS

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It’s now fairly clear what tech pundits like Andrew Rubin mean when they say Artificial Intelligence will be the operating system of the future – that is, some kind of omnipresent, all listening entity that will live inside our cars, houses and cell phones, taking orders and answering questions (all the while vacuuming up every last shred of privacy we thought we had left).  Already, nascent forms of this can be seen in the likes of Amazon’s Alexa, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana. As if the space wasn’t crowded enough, now the Chinese search giant Baidu is throwing its hat in the ring with a newly minted AI assistant/platform called DuerOS. Let’s pop the hood and see what’s behind DuerOS and where it is likely to take the field.

self driving car

Baidu’s self driving car, just one of the many devices slated to run DuerOS. Image Courtesy CNN Money

The first thing to understand about the next wave of AI assistants, which includes DuerOS, is they will be device agnostic. That is, they will live in the cloud and follow us from device to device, seamlessly syncing across time and space. If this doesn’t give you evil nightmares of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it probably should, because reading lips will likely be just one of the many “superpowers” these AI assistants possess. For anyone with an android smartphone, Google probably already knows more about your recent history than you do! Doubt this, just check out your Google Timeline or Search History for a creepy, dystopian, stroll down memory lane. But the AI assistant to rule them all will be the one best positioned to make sense of these breadcrumbs left behind when we search the internet or enable location tracking on our cell phones, and thereby anticipate our actions and desires.

For this reason DuerOS has an immediate advantage over some of the competitors. Baidu has 1 billion gadget hungry Chinese already using its search engine, providing it with an enormous amount of data for its AI to sift through and “train upon”. They also have direct access to many of the device manufacturers which are located in China, making adoption by hardware firms potentially more swift. Already Baidu is in conversation with some top speaker manufactures to pursue incorporating DuerOS into audio devices, ala Alexa.  However, going forward there will be a number of challenges to be surmounted, some particular to DuerOS and others faced by the entire field.

To my mind, the biggest problem of all is that the entire AI assistant category smells like a solution in search of a problem.  Many of these assistants feel like tech wizardry dreamed up by  Silicon Valley nerds that offer little in the way of day to day utility. Telling Amazon Alexa to turn on your living room lights isn’t that different from The Clapper light of the 1980’s, for the simple reason that unless the voice recognition works flawlessly, and let me tell you it currently doesn’t, than it is easier just to get up and turn on the light yourself than wait for Alexa to figure out what you’ve been shouting at her. In the end what is envisioned as an improvement becomes another way to drain and frustrate us. Sadly so many in Silicon Valley fail to realize that there is a limit to how many ways you can slice a person’s attention among different gadgets and operating systems before they dissolve into a gibbering puddle of nervous indecision.

DuerOS will not only have to find a solid use case beyond turning on lights and adjusting speaker volumes, it will need to somehow penetrate the English speaking market which is already saturated with the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft. So while Baidu clearly has grand visions for its newly minted OS, it will have to prove it can run with the big dogs before it deserves more than a passing glance.

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