Baidu chief doused with water at AI event

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Media captionWATCH: Man pours water on Baidu chief

The chief executive of Chinese tech giant Baidu has been doused with water during a speech about artificial intelligence (AI).

Robin Li, co-founder of the firm, was mid-presentation when a man walked on to the stage, grabbed his arm and emptied a bottle of water on his head.

The incident happened at the Baidu Create 2019 conference in Beijing.

Among the announcements was the news that the firm’s smart speaker can now be activated without a “wake word”.

This means the device can respond to users’ commands automatically.

After Mr Li was drenched with water, he was heard to say, “What’s your problem?” as he wiped liquid from his face.

The man who took to the stage gave no indication of why he poured the water on Mr Li.

A spokesman for Baidu told BBC News the firm was not aware of any reason behind the drenching.

They added that the matter was now being handled by police.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Li wiped the water away and continued with his presentation

Baidu is China’s top search provider and has long faced criticism over the quality of its internet search results.

In 2016, Chinese authorities investigated the firm following the death of a student who tried an experimental cancer therapy he found online.

The student’s family said at the time that he found the therapy via Baidu.

Mr Li has also faced scrutiny from investors recently, after the company reported its first ever quarterly loss since becoming a publicly traded firm.

‘Unexpected things’

Following his drenching, Mr Li pressed on with his talk.

“As you can see, all kinds of unexpected things may happen on our way forward in AI development,” said Mr Li a moment later. The audience applauded.

“But our determination won’t change going forward. We firmly believe AI will change everyone’s life.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Baidu makes technology for self-driving cars, among other products

The Baidu Create event is where the company describes its latest work on AI.

The firm announced that its smart speaker could now understand English as well as Chinese speech and could be activated without a wake word.

It differentiates the device from products such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home devices, which still require the use of a commanding wake word before every interaction.

A spokesman for Baidu explained to BBC News that the feature must be enabled manually by users via “geek mode”.

Following the first use of a wake word, the smart speaker will constantly analyse speech and listen for commands.

If no commands are heard once 30 seconds have elapsed, using the wake word again becomes necessary.

According to the firm, Baidu’s voice assistant technology is now installed on 400 million devices and handles more than 3.6 billion queries per month.

Baidu executives also revealed that the company was working with Chinese bank SPD to develop a “digital employee” AI that could provide “personalised financial services for tens of millions of people nationwide”.

Self-driving taxis

And there was also news on self-driving vehicles – the company announced it would soon launch the biggest driverless taxi fleet in China.

The service will comprise 100 vehicles and is to be made available in the city on Changsha in Hunan province.

And more liquid was poured on stage later during the event – but in a more controlled manner.

A robotic arm served one of Baidu’s executives a cup of tea, by pouring it from an extremely long teapot spout.


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