Sogou CEO Wang Xiaochuan sets vision on AI-powered interlingual translation

Sogou Inc. (NYSE: SOGO) – the company that runs China’s second largest search engine – is currently a rather quiet player in the Chinese internet sector. Be that as it may, Sogou has been making progress on artificial intelligence (AI), the area on which the company has pledged to focus since its IPO in November 2017.

Recognizing the growing trend of Chinese nationals traveling abroad in the past few years, Sogou launched two hardware products in January – the Sogou Travel Translator and the Sogou Smart Translation Recorder – that provide instant text and image translations between Chinese and 16 other languages.

“The most difficult thing in the artificial intelligence sector is actually natural-language processing. Language represents human interpretations of the world. It is a combination of knowledge and reasoning,” said Sogou CEO Wang Xiaochuan at this year’s Harvard College China Forum held in Boston on April 7.

In the international market, Sogou is most often known as the world’s third most popular search engine behind Google and Baidu. Yet the company has gained more prominence domestically through the Sogou Pinyin Input, the text input software that predicts phrases in Hanyu Pinyin, a standard romanization for the Chinese language, using artificial intelligence. Sogou has become the #1 Chinese-language input provider for both desktop and mobile platforms since its launch in 2006; the penetration rates for PC and mobile devices are 98% and 70%, respectively.

Wang Xiaochuan pointed out that using existing AI technologies to solve pragmatic user demands is one of the top challenges for AI companies, but Sogou has a great edge over other AI players. “Sogou’s mission is to allow ordinary users to directly benefit from these [AI] technologies. Many Chinese startups have done a significant amount of research, but user scenarios are absent in practice. Both of Sogou’s two core products, the input method and the search engine, deal with natural language.”

A Sogou-translated version of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

Sogou debuted its real-time speech translation engine last year at the 4th World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China. The engine can also analyze the speaker’s voice, based on which it then creates a phonetically-similar simultaneous voice-over. “The translation engine is backed by the Sogou search engine and Sogou Input,” explained Wang Xiaochuan at the Harvard College China Forum. “The accuracy of AI translation today is very close to that of human translation. While there still are some deficiencies, we should expect to see technological breakthroughs within three to five years.”

Wang envisions Sogou’s AI-based ecosystem to fit in the larger picture of China’s expansion: “Language barriers are core problems today. With Sogou Input, Chinese users can type Chinese into the Sogou search engine, which will search web contents not only in Chinese, but also in English, Japanese, and Korean. This would enable more Chinese people to communicate globally. Besides our own cultural foundations, better communication with other countries is equally pivotal for China to become a global power.”

Compared to English-speaking countries, China is more incentivized to mitigate language obstacles, Wang said. “To Google, building a translation tool is like showing off its muscles; but to us, it is a solution to existing practical problems. This was also what drove us to develop Sogou Input.”

Nevertheless, Google isn’t Sogou’s only adversary. Other Chinese internet titans, including Baidu, which was the company’s competitor in both the search engine and text input sectors, will also pose a great threat to Wang’s scheme.

(Top photo from Harvard College China Forum)

Tianyu Fang
Tianyu Fang

Tianyu a.k.a. Tian is a freelance writer on Asian tech and culture based in Massachusetts, USA. He also researches on politics, international relations, and cyberspace governance. Tian previously lived in Beijing, where he worked closely with China's software developer community.

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