The Wall Street Journal吴恩达专访

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Six months ago, Chinese Internet-search giant Baidu signaled its ambitions to innovate by opening an artificial-intelligence center in Silicon Valley, in Google’s backyard. To drive home the point, Baidu hired Stanford researcher Andrew Ng, the founder of Google’s artificial-intelligence effort, to head it.

Ng is a leading voice in “deep learning,” a branch of artificial intelligence in which scientists try to get computers to “learn” for themselves by processing massive amounts of data. He was part of a team that in 2012 famously taught a network of computers to recognize cats after being shown millions of photos.

On a practical level, the field helps computers better recognize spoken words, text and shapes, providing users with better Web searches, suggested photo tags or communication with virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ng discussed his team’s progress, the quirks of Chinese Web-search queries, the challenges of driverless cars and what it’s like to work for Baidu. Edited excerpts follow:

WSJ: In May, we wrote about Baidu’s plans to invest $300 million in this facility and hire almost 200 employees. How’s that coming along?

Ng: We’re on track to close out the year with 96 people in this office, employees plus contractors. We’re still doing the 2015 planning, but I think we’ll quite likely double again in 2015. We’re creating models much faster than I have before so that’s been really nice. Our machine-learning team has been developing a few ideas, looking a lot at speech recognition, also looking a bit at computer vision.

WSJ: Are there examples of the team’s work on speech recognition and computer vision?

Ng: Baidu’s performance at speech recognition has already improved substantially in the past year because of deep learning. About 10% of our web search queries today come in through voice search. Large parts of China are still a developing economy. If you’re illiterate, you can’t type, so enabling users to speak to us is critical for helping them find information. In China, some users are less sophisticated, and you get queries that you just wouldn’t get in the United States. For example, we get queries like, “Hi Baidu, how are you? I ate noodles at a corner store last week and they were delicious. Do you think they’re on sale this weekend?” That’s the query.

WSJ: You can process that?

Ng: If they speak clearly, we can do the transcription fairly well and then I think we make a good attempt at answering. Honestly, the funniest ones are schoolchildren asking questions like: “Two trains leave at 5 o’ clock, one from …” That one we’ve made a smaller investment in, dealing with the children’s homework. In China, a lot of users’ first computational device is their smartphone, they’ve never owned a laptop, never owned a PC. It’s a challenge and an opportunity.

WSJ: You have the Baidu Eye, a head-mounted device similar to Google Glass. How is that project going?

Ng: Baidu Eye is not a product, it’s a research exploration. It might be more likely that we’ll find one or two verticals where it adds a lot of value and we’d recommend you wear Baidu Eye when you engage in certain activities, such as shopping or visiting museums. Building something that works for everything 24/7 – that is challenging.

WSJ: What about the self-driving car project? We know Baidu has partnered with BMW on that.

Ng: That’s another research exploration. Building self-driving cars is really hard. I think making it achieve high levels of safety is challenging. It’s a relatively early project. Building something that is safe enough to drive hundreds of thousands of miles, including roads that you haven’t seen before, roads that you don’t have a map of, roads where someone might have started to do construction just 10 minutes ago, that is hard.

WSJ: How does working at Baidu compare to your experience at Google?

Ng: Google is a great company, I don’t want to compare against Google specifically but I can speak about Baidu. Baidu is an incredibly nimble company. Stuff just moves, decisions get made incredibly quickly. There’s a willingness to try things out to see if they work. I think that’s why Baidu, as far as I can tell, has shipped more deep-learning products than any other company, including things at the heart of our business model. Our advertising today is powered by deep learning.

WSJ: Who’s at the forefront of deep learning?

Ng: There are a lot of deep-learning startups. Unfortunately, deep learning is so hot today that there are startups that call themselves deep learning using a somewhat generous interpretation. It’s creating tons of value for users and for companies, but there’s also a lot of hype. We tend to say deep learning is loosely a simulation of the brain. That sound bite is so easy for all of us to use that it sometimes causes people to over-extrapolate to what deep learning is. The reality is it’s really very different than the brain. We barely (even) know what the human brain does.

WSJ: For all of Baidu’s achievements, it still has to operate within China’s constraints. How do you see your work and whether its potential might be limited?

Ng: Obviously, before I joined Baidu this was something I thought about carefully. I think that today, Baidu has done more than any other organization to open the information horizon of the Chinese people. When Baidu operates in China, we obey Chinese law. When we operate in Brazil, which we also do, we obey Brazil’s law. When we operate in the U.S. and have an office here, we obey U.S. law. When a user searches on Baidu, it’s clear that they would like to see a full set of results. I’m comfortable with what Baidu is doing today and I’m excited to continue to improve service to users in China and worldwide.



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