Illustration by TIME; reference image courtesy of Robin Li

As China’s foremost futurist, Robin Li has been riding the AI wave for a long time. Ever since he founded Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, in 2000, Li’s mission has been to better understand and anticipate human behavior—plowing tens of billions of dollars into AI research. Baidu already has its own equivalent of Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, dubbed Xiaodu, as well as fleets of driverless taxis operating in some of China’s biggest cities, including 200 in Wuhan alone. But the recent explosion in generative AI means it’s now “a very exciting time,” Li, 54, tells TIME. “AI now has the ability to do all kinds of logical reasoning that couldn’t be done before.”

On Aug. 31, Baidu publicly released ERNIE Bot, its own large language model (LLM), which Li claims outperforms ChatGPT in several key metrics. Li is also a trusted voice as Beijing ponders appropriate AI regulations. In July, Baidu was appointed a leader of the Chinese government’s National Artificial Intelligence Standardization Group’s LLM task force, whose mood over the past few months has “morphed into a more build-than-regulate mindset,” says Li. “I’m quite hopeful that very soon we will be able to offer public services in a wide range of scenarios.”

AI learns on data, and when China’s regulatory brakes come off, Baidu’s 677 million monthly users would offer quantities that might outstrip those of any domestic competitor. Li believes the possibilities are a “paradigm shift of human-computer interaction,” comparing the current inflection point to the birth of mobile internet, which heralded apps like Uber, WeChat, and TikTok that would never have flourished on desktop computing. Li is predicting “millions and millions of new, AI-native applications that we probably cannot even imagine.”

The burning question is whether Baidu will be able to access the hardware to realize Li’s ambitions. Although the $48 billion firm has developed its own Kunlun microprocessors, it relies heavily on imports from California-based Nvidia, which the Biden Administration has barred from selling its most advanced chips to Chinese customers. Li says the restrictions are “a concern” but might also present an opportunity. “If the barrier becomes higher and higher for us to buy American chips, then domestic chips will become a viable option,” says Li. “There are lots of opportunities to innovate either way, so I’m optimistic about the future of AI.”

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