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Baidu’s Qi Lu, former Microsoft exec, explains why Amazon’s Alexa took the industry by surprise

Qi Lu at Microsoft Build 2016, before his departure from the company. (Microsoft Photo)

Qi Lu was a top engineering executive at Microsoft for eight years, leading products including Office and Bing, and shaping company’s artificial intelligence strategy under CEO Satya Nadella before leaving last year.

Now, Lu is chief operating officer at Baidu, the leading Chinese search engine. In an interview published this week by Wired, he offered insights on the state of artificial intelligence, including the competitive dynamics among the major players.

One of his insights: Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has succeeded largely because it has been rolled out on devices designed from the ground up for artificial intelligence, rather than starting on smartphones. Lu acknowledged that he and others at Microsoft underestimated Amazon’s AI potential at the outset.

Here’s how Lu explained the situation in the Wired interview with Jessi Hempel.

I worked on Cortana four and a half years ago. At the time we all were like, “Amazon, yeah, that technology is so far behind.” But one thing I learned is that in this race to AI, it’s actually more about having the right application scenarios and the right ecosystems. Google and Microsoft, technologically, were ahead of Amazon by a wide margin. But look at the AI race today. The Amazon Alexa ecosystem is far ahead of anybody else in the United States. It’s because they got the scenario right. They got the device right. Essentially, Alexa is an AI-first device.

Microsoft and Google made the same mistake. We focused on Cortana on the phone and PC, particularly the phone. The phone, in my view, is going to be, for the foreseeable future, a finger-first, mobile-first device. You need an AI-first device to solidify an emerging base of ecosystems.

In that way, Amazon’s Fire Phone flop might have been a blessing in disguise, requiring the company to come up with an alternative way of bringing Alexa to market, initially in the form of the Echo smart speakers.

Read the full Wired interview here, including Lu’s explanation of why he believes Baidu is ultimately best-positioned to be the global leader in artificial intelligence.

Lu was widely respected inside Microsoft, helping to push the company into new areas including artificial intelligence and chatbots. His departure from the company nearly a year ago coincided with the launch of its new AI & Research Division.

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