A routine keynote address by Baidu chief Robin Li turned into a public humiliation when an unidentified man jumped onstage and doused him in water.

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The billionaire founder was 10 minutes into introducing an AI-powered valet parking service when a man in a black upended a small bottle of water over his head. The Chinese internet tycoon froze in place for around 20 seconds, wiped his face, then plowed ahead with his speech.

A Thorny Way to AI

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“What’s your problem?” Li said in English to the perpetrator. “As you see, there will be a variety of unexpected barriers on the way to AI,” said the CEO, who was headlining a Baidu artificial intelligence developers’ forum in Beijing.

It was unclear who the prankster was. Li, who established China’s largest search service and a personal fortune estimated at $US8.7 billion (AU$12.4 billion), wrapped up his speech in about 40 minutes before departing the stage. Li is considered among the country’s foremost tech pioneers, a captain of the domestic internet industry alongside the counterparts of Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma.

Signage for Baidu Inc. is displayed on a window at the Baidu Technology Park in Beijing, China, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. Baidu serves 6 billion searches a day and dominates mobile mapping, which gives location data for its mobile users as well as those of apps built on its map data. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Signage for Baidu Inc. is displayed on a window at the Baidu Technology Park in Beijing, China, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. Baidu serves 6 billion searches a day and dominates mobile mapping, which gives location data for its mobile users as well as those of apps built on its map data. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Later, Baidu “strongly” condemned the act in a statement posted on Weibo, calling it “shameful” and “disturbing.” 

Apart from the incident, the search engine giant has weathered a plethora of troubles. In 2016, a university student died after pursuing a cancer treatment he’d found through Baidu’s search engine, fostering mistrust of the brand. China’s slowing economy is hitting the company because it’s heavily reliant on the competitive advertising market. It has also lost several key senior executives in past years. In May, it posted a loss for the first time since going public in 2005.

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The incident follows a number of similar occurrences around the world. In June, animal-rights activists rushed on stage at a conference in Las Vegas where Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos was being interviewed. A few days prior, a man snatched the microphone from California senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris at a forum.—edited from The Age & Bloomberg

Baidu’s Problems and Challenges

Baidu, regarded as the Google of China, felt the heat from its continued spending on artificial intelligence and other next-gen technologies that have yet to reach the mass market as it unveiled troubled first-quarter financials on Thursday.

The company logged a net loss attributable to shareholders of $49 million in the quarter ended March 31, marking the first quarterly loss since it went public in 2005. That compares to net income of 6.69 billion yuan ($970 million) a year before. Content costs surged 47% to $917 million on account of continued investments in Baidu’s Netflix-like video streamer iQiyi, while research and development expenses stood at $621 million, up 26%.

In a letter to staff today, founder Robin Li acknowledged that Baidu faces a “grim situation” and reiterated the firm’s strategy to “invest in return for growth.”

Baidu remains as the largest search service in China, with a 67% market share per data from research firm StatCounter. It’s reaped huge rewards from search ads in the PC era, but as consumers allocate attention to new forms of mobile services — notably recommendation-based apps — to discover content, Baidu is losing its appeal.—edited from techcrunch.com

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2019 is not only a year of challenges, but also a year of opportunities. In the coming months and days, the whole Baidu family, from the senior management to all employees, must work and fight harder,” Robin said.

Baidu has had a stranglehold on search in China with 70% of the market, especially after Google exited in 2010. But a shift in internet usage patterns has chipped at that dominance, with the rise of self-contained super-app ecosystems by rivals like Alibaba, and social media giant Tencent. A user could quite easily watch a movie, read news, shop online and order takeaway food without having to leave one of these walled communities or go to a traditional search engine.

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The stunt overshadowed the company’s showcasing of its latest AI technologies, including a new smart speaker, and the announcement of a strategic partnership with Geely Holding Group under which some of the Chinese carmaker’s vehicles will be equipped with Baidu’s DuerOS for Apollo, to power connected car solutions.

Baidu also said it will launch the country’s biggest robotaxi fleet in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, with users able to hail a self-driving ride enabled by Baidu’s autonomous driving and intelligent road infrastructure technologies.

Baidu’s push into AI comes as its traditional internet search business faces new challenges.

Robin & The Likes

The rise of start-ups like ByteDance, with their AI recommendation-driven news and short-video apps Toutiao and Douyin, are challenging the original trio of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – known commonly as BAT – for the attention and wallets of China’s more than 800 million internet users.

Baidu has also come under fire for promoting its own content in search results. It launched Baijiahao platform in 2016, touted as the search giant’s answer to ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao news aggregator and Tencent Holdings’ WeChat official accounts, giving independent publishers a platform while helping it generate more advertising revenue from online content.

Two years on, the monetisation strategy has paid off, but Baijiahao’s advertising focus has angered some Chinese netizens who criticise the company for failing to provide a search service that provides useful results.

“Baidu.com is no longer where you search for online content in Chinese, but an in-site search of its self-made content,” Fang Kecheng, a Chinese media researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an article posted on his public WeChat account earlier this year.

“It’s no longer directing you to high-quality nourishment for minds, but a hoarder of decaying and deteriorated content.”—-edited from South China Morning Post

‘Waterman’ Arrested

Authorities investigated, identified an individual and placed him in administrative detention, which can last five days, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, police said. Baidu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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This year, a journalist’s criticism of Baidu for prioritizing links to its own publishing platform in its search results went viral. Li’s soaking sparked a lot of chatter on social media with some users making light of the incident. T-shirts poking fun at Li also appeared on Chinese e-commerce sites.—-edited from Reuters

Despite of the incident, Robin shows leadership and a sense of humor on the stage as well as on the financial reports of his search engine empire. He then will need to push Baidu into the arena of mobile and automation. If failed, the soon-coming era of 5G will ultimately end Baidu’s PC dividends along with the domination of BAT (Baidu-Alibaba-Tencent).

Edited by Joreal Qian