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Baidu looks to AI

News, 12 May 2016

BEIJING: Baidu, the Chinese internet search giant at the centre of a controversy over healthcare ads, is shifting its business towards artificial intelligence and prioritising users over business results.

The moves follow a crackdown this week by regulators in response to the outcry that erupted when a student died from cancer following experimental treatment he learned about from a paid listing on the first page of Baidu's search results.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, reported China Daily, stated that the company had "influenced the impartiality and objectivity of its search results, making it easy to mislead users, and this must be immediately rectified".

Baidu said on Monday that it would restrict the proportion of sponsored search results appearing on a page and adopt a new listing system that takes factors such as an advertisers' credibility and reputation into account rather than simply the price paid by online marketers.

Further, it will have to make clear which search results are advertising. Baidu has also said it will set aside RMB 1bn to compensate users who can show they were harmed by misleading marketing information.

In an internal letter to staff, released Tuesday, CEO Li Yanhong, acknowledged the need for change. "If we lose the support of users, we lose hold of our values, and Baidu will truly go bankrupt in just 30 days," he wrote.

He suggested some employees were making compromises for the sake of commercial interests and placing earnings growth above user experience and so has set up a department to oversee internal behaviour and actions.

"The department will have the final say to veto any behaviour that is not in line with a good user experience," Li said in his letter. "Some of the measures we take may have a negative impact on the company's income," he added, "but I believe it is the right thing to do."

He also indicated a shift from a search-oriented model to one based on artificial intelligence, which he said would allow the company to develop such areas as voice search, automatic translation and driverless vehicles.

Data sourced from China Daily, Reuters; additional content by Warc staff