By Eduardo Baptista
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Baidu Inc will use its ChatGPT-like app Ernie Bot to create a “revolutionary” version of its popular search engine, the company’s CEO said on Wednesday.
Baidu, which has invested heavily in artificial intelligence in recent years, is regarded as at the forefront of efforts to create a Chinese rival to the AI platform developed by OpenAI and backed by Microsoft Corp.
Ahead of Ernie Bot’s launch in March, Baidu CEO Robin Li told reporters on a conference call to discuss fourth-quarter results that users would be more dependent on the Baidu search engine once it was embedded with the chatbot. That is because the generative AI powering it would enhance user experience and engagement.
“Ernie Bot will … enhance the user experience and users will be much more dependent on us for all kinds of tasks and needs, therefore, significantly expand the market size of search (engines),” Li said.
He added that online advertising, the company’s main source of revenue, would also be boosted by the integration of Ernie Bot into the search engine. Baidu plans eventually to build an AI ecosystem around Ernie Bot, he said.
The details of Li’s vision for the chatbot come amid a gradual decline in the dominance Baidu once enjoyed as the Chinese answer to Alphabet Inc’s Google, which pulled its search engine out of the Chinese market in 2010.
Tencent’s all-in-one messaging app, WeChat, and Bytedance’s Douyin are among the competitors that have chipped away at Baidu’s market share in recent years.
The company has created new revenue streams by expanding its core business to include AI, cloud services and autonomous driving, as well as pouring money into research and development.
Li said on Wednesday that the generative AI technology underpinning Ernie Bot would be a productivity boon to other businesses and entrepreneurs looking to build their own apps.
Since early February, more than 400 companies have signed up to join the Ernie Bot community as early users of the app, Baidu has said.
Dozens of Chinese tech companies, including e-commerce giants Alibaba Group and JD.Com Inc, have announced plans to develop their own ChatGPT-style tools.
Li said Baidu has an advantage as the “first mover” in China’s market. He said the company has spent years developing large language models that were trained on the billions of daily search requests inputted by its search engine’s users.
He also said Ernie Bot was “state of the art” among large AI-driven language models in terms of understanding China’s language and culture.
While OpenAI and ChatGPT are not blocked by Chinese authorities, OpenAI does not allow users in mainland China, Hong Kong, Iran, Russia and parts of Africa to sign up.
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Editing by Brenda Goh and Matthew Lewis)