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Baidu puts a Chinese spin on family robots

Baidu puts a Chinese spin on family robots

A family robot at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang in November. 


Chinese internet colossus Baidu is out to make a splash with "Little Fish", a family robot that is a voice-controlled virtual valet akin to Amazon Echo or Google Home.

Baidu showed off "Little Fish", a translation of its Chinese name Xiaoyu Zaijia, on Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas ahead of its release in China later this year.

"I think 2017 will be the year of conversational computing," Baidu chief scientist Andrew Ng said while demonstrating the robot. "We see a clear path of it changing everything."

Using the human voice to interact with computers that are able to essentially learn from experience was among the hot trends at the show. Arrays of device makers added digital aide capabilities with the help of Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant technology.

Unlike "faceless" Amazon Alexa or Google Home devices that rely on people asking for information or controlling devices by speaking, Little Fish also features a touch-screen on top of its orb-shaped base.

A camera on top tracks faces, and the screen swivels to keep facing a speaker.

"Speech is the fastest way for you to communicate with a computer, but a screen is a very fast way for a machine to communicate with you," Ng said.

For example, it would be quicker to glance at a requested list of top restaurants from Yelp than it would be to listen to the computer read all the names and descriptions, he said.

"Little Fish" uses Baidu's operating system DuerOS, which is already employed by other devices in China, such as set-top TV boxes that can switch channels by voice command or figure out names of actors on screen when asked.

"It will transform how you use devices in your home. There are plenty of business models," Ng said.

Baidu partnered with hardware firm Ainemo to build the second-generation device.

"We believe family robots will be the next big category that will be a member of everybody's home," Ainemo CEO Chenfeng Song said.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is getting a foothold in homes, with developers feverishly adding "skills" to Amazon Echo speakers infused with Alexa.

Google, meanwhile, is using its AI prowess in Android smartphones, messaging software, and a vase-sized Home digital assistant.

The home hubs, sometimes referred to as smart speakers, fetch content or answers from the internet, and can act as remote controls for other devices in houses.

Chinese tech giant Huawei said at the trade show that it is adding Amazon's Alexa to its flagship smartphone for its US launch. Lenovo announced it was launching a smart home assistant powered by Alexa, joining the growing roster of contenders in voice-activated devices.

Experts expect voice technology to quickly improve, within years perhaps even being able to recognize speakers so accurately it could be used for biometric security.

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