By Michael Kan
As Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana introduces herself to new Windows 10 users around the world, Chinese search giant Baidu is adding its own AI, Duer, to a mobile app used by millions of Chinese.
Baidu showed off Duer’s ability to place orders online with a version of the software embodied in a a cute little robot.
After a brief dialog to establish the user’s wishes, Duer ordered two lattes for delivery in 15 minutes during a demo on Tuesday.
Baidu has no immediate plans to sell the robot, but the AI software powering it was incorporated Tuesday into Mobile Baidu, an app that runs on Android or iOS, platforms that already offer their own virtual assistants functions, Google Now and Siri.
Baidu’s Duer is a voice-activated assistant, designed to give recommendations and make purchases online, according to Baidu CEO Robin Li. “We want everyone to have a personal assistant,” he said. Upon request, Duer can place restaurant reservations, buy movie tickets, and book flights, among many other options. During Tuesday’s demo, Baidu’s CEO showed that Duer could also be asked to find out which restaurants would allow dogs inside, and then recommend one.
Baidu, China’s largest search engine, developed Duer by indexing data on various vendors across industries. For more specific queries, such as which restaurants allow dogs, Baidu’s own technology will search through user reviews to find an answer, said Wang Haifeng, a company vice president.
Although Baidu is still developing its Duer robot, the plan is to bring the virtual assistant software to various devices, Wang said. On Tuesday, Baidu also unveiled a larger robot version over a meter high that could be used to greet customers at a store.
From a business standpoint, Duer could drive more traffic and merchants to Baidu’s platform. Increasingly, Chinese users are relying on their mobile phones to make online purchases for food deliveries and movie tickets, and Internet giants including Baidu, Alibaba Group and Tencent are all competing for ways to cash in on this growth.
In June, Baidu said it would invest US$3.2 billion in its online-to-offline (O2O) e-commerce business. That investment will go toward Nuomi, Baidu’s group-buying service, which can be used to find deals on restaurants, movie tickets, hotels and more.
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