On a glossy blue circular stage attended by dutiful robot assistants and flanked by rows and rows of futuristic skyscrapers, Baidu CEO, Chairman and Co-Founder Robin Li proudly declared a “golden decade of AI.”
The grandiose statement came at the Beijing-based tech giant’s annual developers conference, Baidu Create 2021. However, rather than taking place at a physical venue, this year’s iteration was held entirely in the chrome-hued digital paradise that is XiRang (希壤 Xīráng, ‘Land of Hope’) – Baidu’s foray into one of 2021’s most hyped tech trends, the metaverse (元宇宙 yuányǔzhòu).
Since Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s official rebranding as Meta Platforms, Inc. in October, the global tech industry has been abuzz with gossip on the latest developments in the rush to actualize a comprehensive digital world, integrating the internet, virtual reality, augmented reality and AI.
Baidu, Inc., founded in Beijing in 2000, is well known in China for its ubiquitous internet search engine and series of other web services, including a mobile mapping application. Listed to the Nasdaq in 2005, followed by a more recent second listing in Hong Kong, Baidu has a current market capitalization of $47.44 billion and has become one of the world’s leading AI products and services firms.
Last week, Baidu offered a preview of XiRang, accessed via an app and billed as a one-stop immersive digital realm allowing users to interact, participate in conferences, and even explore and engage in virtual tourism.
At the preliminary event, Ma Jie, the company’s executive in charge of the metaverse project, sought to manage expectations, forecasting that it may be as long as six years before Baidu is able to complete a full launch of what the firm envisions. The delayed timeline is due primarily to the advanced technology required to actualize a virtual digital world on such a scale. Many of the AI algorithms capable of supporting such life-like interaction between millions of individual users have yet to be developed or need to be further refined.
The tech giant has now opened XiRang for the wider public to explore, officially entering the ring of global tech leaders operating in the metaverse space.
At the Monday conference, Robin Li said that “the era of man-computer symbiosis has arrived,” asserting that the coming ten years will represent a golden era for AI all over the world. Baidu is clearly positioning itself to serve as a leading player in this environment.
Although much media coverage of Create 2021 was focused on its metaverse venue, the event also offered Baidu an opportunity to share its recent progress in a range of other fields, including intelligent transportation and AI computer chips.
The firm’s “Apollo Go” robotaxi venture, which combines AI, 5G and cloud computing, allows passengers to order rides from L4 autonomous driving vehicles. The service, which is still in the process of development and expansion, had completed 115,000 rides by the third quarter of 2021, and is scheduled to reach 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030.
In terms of computing power, Baidu also offered some of the year’s highlights. Among the firm’s most watched ventures is its self-developed Kunlun AI computer chips, which began mass production in August. Amid an ongoing semiconductor shortage and an increasing sense of urgency from Chinese regulators to achieve autonomy in this vital sector, the Kunlun chips may ultimately play a key role in Baidu’s attempts to transform the transportation industry and cloud computing.
Making an unexpected appearance at Baidu Create 2021 was the American Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who spoke at length about the latest developments in the field, including black holes and gravitational waves. At the conclusion of his presentation, Robin Li sought to inspire viewers, saying, “we will uncover the mysteries of the universe together.”
But Baidu may find it difficult to live up to the tall orders expressed at the conference, at least in terms of its aspirations in the metaverse. Apart from the stiff competition it will face from fellow Chinese tech behemoths like Tencent and Alibaba, national authorities – which have this year unleashed an aggressive regulatory campaign to bring the sprawling industry to heel – are now eyeing metaverse-related projects closer than ever.
Earlier this month, the website of two top official watchdogs released a document entitled “How the Metaverse Rewrites Human Social Life,” which expressed the need to obtain a better understanding of the risks and opportunities presented by novel digital realms such as XiRang. While tech firms may see boundless opportunity in ushering innumerable daily activities, ranging from the mundane to the exhilarating, into the metaverse, regulation may soon present an additional set of hurdles.
Some of these limitations are already visible. At last week’s event, Baidu executive Ma Jie affirmed that XiRang will not incorporate functions enabling the trading of virtual currencies or digital assets such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – another closely followed tech trend of 2021 – saying, “We need to make breakthroughs in several key technologies, such as safe, self-independent and intelligent cloud computing technologies.”
Given that metaverse development is still in its early stages, as well as the apparent lack of any comprehensive regulatory strategy, the future of the sector in China is uncertain. At the same time, the country is home to many of the companies best positioned to make global waves in the metaverse space throughout the coming years, spurred on by a quickly adapting and tech savvy populace.
One such company is Nreal, a Chinese startup focused on developing augmented reality (AR) glasses. Founded in 2017 by current CEO Chi Xu, the company is banking on what he anticipates will be one of the coming decades fastest-growing sectors. As consumers begin to clamor for more immersive digital experiences, Nreal is positioning itself to play a key part.
Further, one of China’s leading gaming companies NetEase has expressed an ambitious desire to lead the country’s metaverse sector and has already begun making strategic moves and conducting technological development. Just a week ago, the firm announced cooperation with the Sanya Municipal Government in China’s southern island province of Hainan to establish a metaverse-related industrial base in the city.
Meanwhile, Beijing-based TikTok creator ByteDance has also expressed interest in the metaverse. In August, the firm acquired one of the world’s leading virtual reality (VR) headset makers Pico, marking ByteDance’s first major move in the sector.
Finally, two of the country’s leading tech firms, Alibaba and Tencent, have also made metaverse progress this year. During Alibaba’s major annual e-commerce festival “Double Eleven,” the firm released what it dubbed a metaverse art exhibition, which allowed users to explore NFTs sponsored by various leading global brands. On the other hand, Tencent CEO Pony Ma made initial comments on the metaverse during an earnings call last month.
In this “golden decade of AI,” Baidu will face tough competition from its domestic peers. With the public launch of XiRang, however, Baidu has now firmly established itself as one of China’s leaders in the race to bring about a truly revolutionary metaverse product.