Chinese travellers may have one more essential gadget to pack for overseas trips after Sogou, China’s second largest search engine after Baidu, launched an AI-powered language translator, with more than 3,000 pre-sold within the first 24 hours.
The gadget, which went on sale Monday on e-commerce site JD.com for 1,498 yuan (US$237), can translate 17 languages – including English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Hindi – into Chinese and vice versa through image-scanning and real time audio and text translation.
“Translation will be one of the major breakthroughs for Sogou this year,” said Wang Xiaochuan, founder and CEO of the company, which holds about 18 per cent of China’s search engine market. “We hope to make communication more convenient.”
In China’s cut throat internet industry where the winner usually takes all, Sogou is going head to head with Baidu and Google in trying to build a critical mass of users to earn advertising income from their translation services. Google, whose search engine is banned in China, re-entered the mainland Chinese market in October by promoting its Translate mobile app to a new generation of users oblivious to its brand after a seven year absence.
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The auto translator, with the Chinese name of “Travel Translator Pal”, can operate in environments with background noise and its scanning ability helps users make sense of foreign language text on menus and street signs, according to Sogou. The latter function is also offered by Google’s Translate, a free app which handles more than 100 languages and has the same real-time conversation translation function.
“We focus on languages – it’s our core, like visuals, voice and we turn them into text,” Wang said in an earlier interview.
Although more than 90 per cent of Sogou’s revenues come from its search and advertising business, for many Chinese speakers the company is better known for its text input software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to predict and recommend phrases using standard pinyin romanisation for Chinese. It raised US$585 million in a New York initial public offering in November last year.
The input method, which has been an essential tool for typing Chinese characters among Sogou’s more than 300 million users for over a decade, has been enhanced in recent years through use of AI.