Baidu Acquires Seattle Natural Language Startup KITT.AI

KITT.AI, a startup spun out of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in 2015 and backed by investors including Amazon’s Alexa Fund, has been acquired by Chinese technology giant Baidu.

KITT.AI makes technology to enable voice interaction with digital devices and services, including a platform that allows people to “wake up” devices with a defined word or phrase, and systems for natural language understanding and dialogue management.

It’s the latest example of a global technology giant scooping up a talented team of experts in technologies that enable artificial intelligence applications. Other examples include Microsoft’s acquisition of Maluuba, a Canadian startup focused on teaching machines to read.

KITT.AI was founded under the name Hummingbird Computation in 2015 by Xuchen Yao (pictured), Guoguo Chen, and Kenji Sagae. Yao and Chen earned PhDs from Johns Hopkins University; Sagae from Carnegie Mellon University. Each has focused his career on various aspects of natural language processing, deep learning, and speech recognition technologies.

KITT.AI raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) through its $100 million Alexa Fund, and Seattle-based venture investor Founders’ Co-op. Madrona Venture Group hosted KITT.AI during its seed stage, according to a tweet Wednesday morning from Matt McIlwain, Madrona managing director. The company is listed among Madrona’s portfolio companies.

CEO Yao writes in a blog post announcing the acquisition that KITT.AI’s wake word technology, Snowboy, is used by more than 12,000 developers. In the “war of chatbot platforms,” Yao writes, KITT.AI is gaining traction, with paying customers from four continents.

“Now KITT.AI’s products are deployed in smart phone apps, speakers, appliances, web chat, cars, homes, conference rooms, offices, hospitals, and even telephone lines,” Yao writes, adding that the company is profitable.

Baidu (NASDAQ: BIDU) gives KITT.AI a view to a larger audience of developers and the financial might of 17-year-old Beijing-based search and cloud services provider. Developers using KITT.AI’s technology will benefit from “better products, better services and a peace of mind that KITT.AI will continue to operate with its existing products in the years to come,” Yao writes. “Yes, literally nothing changes in our existing products and brands.”

Baidu, meanwhile, has seen some changes in its artificial intelligence efforts, including the departure of chief scientist Andrew Ng in March. The company is a formidable player and this week announced at its A.I. developer conference an expanded partnership with Nvidia (NASDAQ: NVDA), the maker of graphics processing chips used for many machine learning and A.I. applications, covering cloud services, self-driving cars, and in-home assistants.

In another bit of China-related tech deal making around the Xconomy network Wednesday: Boston-area flying car maker Terrafugia has been acquired by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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