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China’s Google launches AI assistant to challenge Siri

Chinese search giant Baidu has launched its own artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistant – like Apple's Siri – that will let users carry out tasks such as ordering takeout by talking to their smartphones.

The service, called Duer, can be accessed via Baidu's flagship search app called Mobile Baidu which can be downloaded on to mobile devices via its own app store.

In launching its personal assistant, Baidu is putting itself in direct competition with Apple's Siri, but not Google Now or Facebook's own offering called M which it is currently trialing, as both companies to not operate in China.


Pet-grooming on-demand?

Baidu said that Duer can fulfil requests for restaurants and food deliver, pet-related services like grooming and buying film tickets and is expected to expand into areas such as ride-hailing, education, travel and healthcare, the company said.

The idea behind AI – or machine learning – is that it will take into account factors such as a user's location and past searches. So people who have searched via Baidu will be able to get results that are relevant to them. As an increasing number of searches are carried out, Duer will generate "tags" for services that will help it search for more specific things.


Baidu headquarters, Beijing, China
Tomohiro Ohsumi | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Baidu headquarters, Beijing, China

Baidu gives an example of a restaurant in Beijing which could be tagged simply as being "medium-priced". But through machine learning, and taking into account more data, additional tags such as "outdoor seating" or "pet friendly" could be added to that restaurant to make the search results via Duer more detailed and relevant.

Online-to-offline

Analysts said that the real push behind this personal assistant is to drive people towards Baidu's offline services.

"Duer…provides tight links into the company's biggest investment area of Online-to-Offline (O2O) services, such as ordering from local restaurants and buying tickets at local cinemas," Martin Garner, senior vice president at CCS Insight, told CNBC by email.

The online-to-offline (O2O) market – where internet retailers are offering traditional bricks-and-mortar services – is rapidly-growing in China and competition is fierce between the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. Alibaba recently invested $4.63 billion into Chinese bricks-and-mortar electronics retailer Suning in an example of this trend.

Baidu has many stakes in offline firms. On Monday, the search giant led a $1.2 billion investment round in ride hailing app Uber. It also said it would invest 20 billion yuan ($3.14 billion) in its O2O services this year. If people are searching for offline services that Baidu offers via Duer, the search giant will inevitably benefit from the revenue generated by that.


Artificial intelligence has become a major theme among tech companies: Alibaba's cloud computing arm, Aliyun, recently released an AI platform to boost its cloud offering, while Apple is said to have ramped up its hiring in that field. Facebook is also trialling a part-AI, part-human, personal assistant called "M" via its Messenger app. The goal of this would be to drive more people to use the service for search and services rather than Google.

Analysts also said Duer is key for Baidu to defend its dominant position in China and will help when it looks to expand internationally.

"Baidu's new Duer…puts it in a position to defend its dominant search position in China against other players who are investing in search, including Microsoft with Cortana, Apple with Siri and Facebook with M. Duer will also be an important component to have in place as Baidu expands internationally," Garner said.