Baidu axes mobile healthcare unit to focus on AI

Chinese search giant Baidu has shut down its two-year-old medical business and folded other health segments into its artificial intelligence and search teams, the firm said in a statement sent to Reuters on Thursday.

Baidu has been refocusing its business strategy after Chinese authorities cracked down last year on medical advertising, once a lucrative business sector for the firm, which led to a steep drop in sales in the latter half of 2016.

Baidu said the content production team will move into the search engine department. While the rest of the business in the former healthcare department will be shut down.

The artificial intelligence teams would look to develop applications that could be used in the medical field. These could include areas such as drug development and testing, gene sequencing and patient diagnosis.

Two programmes will be added to its AI arm – "thumb doctor" and "intelligent little-e". Thumb Doctor is an online platform where real experts answer people’s questions about medical symptoms, while intelligent little-e is a chatbot project that helps provide instant diagnoses.

"The most important force that could change the medical field is artificial intelligence," Baidu CEO Robin Li said.

In January, Baidu appointed former Microsoft executive Qi Lu as chief operating officer, part of the broader push into artificial intelligence as a new driver for growth.