Baidu closes Wikipedia-like app as focus shifts to generative AI service Ernie Bot

China’s web search giant Baidu will shut down its encyclopaedia app Baidu Baike, a local alternative to Wikipedia, as it shifts more resources to artificial intelligence (AI) development in a bet on the technology to become its next growth engine.

The Beijing-based, Hong Kong-listed company will end support for the app on June 30 to focus on “better user experiences”, according to a statement published on the Baike app on Wednesday. Users can continue to access the service through a mini-program on the main Baidu app, it said.

Launched in 2006, Baike is one of Baidu’s oldest products. Like Wikipedia, Baike relies on internet users to contribute and update content. As of April last year, the platform had more than 27 million entries, edited by over 7.7 million netizens, according to the company.

Baike initially gained popularity partly because access to Wikipedia, run by US non-profit group Wikimedia Foundation, had been intermittently interrupted on the mainland, before the Chinese site was completely blocked in 2008, followed by the full site in 2019. Unlike Baike, Wikipedia does not censor politically sensitive subjects.

A screenshot of an entry on Baidu Baike, the Chinese tech giant’s alternative to Wikipedia.

Baike’s homepage drew nearly 295 million visits last month, more than four times the 67.9 million visits that the Chinese-language Wikipedia homepage received, according to online data provider SimilarWeb.

Baike’s traffic came mostly from mainland China, while Wikipedia was more popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Baidu’s decision to close the Baike app comes as the company devotes increasing investments to AI initiatives, such as the Ernie chatbot powered by its self-developed large language model (LLM) of the same name.

“Throughout 2023, we made significant strides in advancing Ernie and Ernie Bot, reinventing our products and services, and achieving breakthroughs in monetisation,” said chairman and CEO Robin Li Yanhong in Baidu’s most recent financial report.

The company generated 134.6 billion yuan (US$18.6 billion) in revenue last year, up 9 per cent from 2022, according to the report. Its core business, which includes products and services from new AI projects, as well as search-based, feed-based and other online marketing services, saw sales jump 8 per cent to 103.5 billion yuan.

“Looking ahead, our commitment to generative AI and foundation models remains unwavering, paving the way for the gradual creation of a new growth engine,” Li said.

Ernie Bot had attracted over 200 million users and about 85,000 enterprise clients 13 months after its launch, Li said at Baidu’s AI developers’ conference in China’s southern tech hub Shenzhen last week.

Ernie Bot 4.0, the latest version, is one of the top two LLMs developed in China, according to a recent assessment by the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. While still lagging behind global leaders such as OpenAI and Anthropic, Ernie has been gradually narrowing its gap with the world’s best models, the report said.

Baidu collaborated with OpenAI, as well as leading tech companies including Microsoft, Nvidia, Tencent Holdings and Ant Group to publish two new international standards on generative AI and LLM earlier this month.



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