The Chatbot Search Wars Have Begun


This week the world's largest search companies leaped into a contest to harness a powerful new breed of "generative AI" algorithms.

Most notably Microsoft announced that it is rewiring Bing, which lags some way behind Google in terms of popularity, to use ChatGPT—the insanely popular and often surprisingly capable chatbot made by the AI startup OpenAI.

In case you’ve been living in outer space for the past few months, you'll know that people are losing their minds over ChatGPT’s ability to answer questions in strikingly coherent and seemingly insightful and creative ways. Want to understand quantum computing? Need a recipe for whatever’s in the fridge? Can’t be bothered to write that high school essay? ChatGPT has your back.

The all-new Bing is similarly chatty. Demos that the company gave at its headquarters in Redmond, and a quick test drive by WIRED’s Aarian Marshall, who attended the event, show that it can effortlessly generate a vacation itinerary, summarize the key points of product reviews, and answer tricky questions, like whether an item of furniture will fit in a particular car. It’s a long way from Microsoft’s hapless and hopeless Office assistant Clippy, which some readers may recall bothering them every time they created a new document.

Not to be outdone by Bing’s AI reboot, Google said this week that it would release a competitor to ChatGPT called Bard. (The name was chosen to reflect the creative nature of the algorithm underneath, one Googler tells me.) The company, like Microsoft, showed how the underlying technology could answer some web searches and said it would start making the AI behind the chatbot available to developers. Google is apparently unsettled by the idea of being upstaged in search, which provides the majority of parent Alphabet’s revenue. And its AI researchers may be understandably a little miffed since they actually developed the machine learning algorithm at the heart of ChatGPT, known as a transformer, as well as a key technique used to make AI imagery, known as diffusion modeling.

Last but by no means least in the new AI search wars is Baidu, China’s biggest search company. It joined the fray by announcing another ChatGPT competitor, Wenxin Yiyan (文心一言), or "Ernie Bot" in English. Baidu says it will release the bot after completing internal testing this March.

These new search bots are examples of generative AI, a trend fueled by algorithms that can generate text, craft computer code, and dream up images in response to a prompt. The tech industry might be experiencing widespread layoffs, but interest in generative AI is booming, and VCs are imagining whole industries being rebuilt around this new creative streak in AI.

Generative language tools like ChatGPT will surely change what it means to search the web, shaking up an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually, by making it easier to dig up useful information and advice. A web search may become less about clicking links and exploring sites and more about leaning back and taking a chatbot’s word for it. Just as importantly, the underlying language technology could transform many other tasks too, perhaps leading to email programs that write sales pitches or spreadsheets that dig up and summarize data for you. To many users, ChatGPT also seems to signal a shift in AI’s ability to understand and communicate with us.

But there is, of course, a catch.

While the text they sling at us can look human, AI models behind ChatGPT and its new brethren do not work remotely like a human brain. Their algorithms are narrowly designed to learn to predict what should come after a prompt by feeding on statistical patterns in huge amounts of text from the web and books. They have absolutely no understanding of what they are saying or whether an answer might be incorrect, inappropriate, biased, or representative of the real world. What’s more, because these AI tools generate text purely based on patterns they’ve previously seen, they are prone to “hallucinating” information. And, in fact, ChatGPT gets some of its power from a technique that involves humans giving feedback on questions—but that feedback optimizes for answers that seem convincing, not ones that are accurate or true.

These issues may be a problem if you’re trying to use the technology to make web search more useful. Microsoft has apparently fixed some common flaws with ChatGPT in Bing (we tried tripping it up a few times), but the real test will come when it’s made widely available. One Bard response that Google has proudly shown off incorrectly claims that the James Webb Space telescope was the first to take a picture of a planet beyond our solar system. Oops.

The AI search wars might have started, but perhaps the winner will not be the most powerful chatbot, but the one that messes up the least.

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