By Eduardo Baptista
BEIJING (Reuters) – Baidu’s Ernie bot can within seconds generate pictures of flowers and write Tang dynasty-style poems but will decline questions about Chinese President Xi Jinping by saying it has not yet learnt how to answer them, Reuters tests showed.
The Chinese search engine giant last week unveiled China’s closest rival to OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT and from Thursday allowed users to apply for access to it.
Some analysts and users soon began posting positive reviews of their experiences with Ernie bot, and side-by-side comparisons with ChatGPT, that drove Baidu’s share price higher.
Still, there have been questions about how Ernie and other Chinese chatbots in development would treat topics that are sensitive in mainland China, where authorities tightly censor the internet.
Tests by Reuters of ChatGPT indicated that the Microsoft-backed chatbot is not averse to answering such questions.
Reuters on Monday posed several questions to Ernie on Xi, including whether he was a good leader, his contributions to China, and a request for a poem and portrait of him.
To some of these questions, it responded with a two-paragraph description of Xi’s education and roles but it declined to answer most of them.
“As an AI large-scale language model, I have not learnt how to answer that question, you can ask me some other questions, I will do my best to help you solve them,” the bot said.
It responded in a similar manner to questions about China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the treatment by authorities of the Uyghur Muslim ethnic minority in the western region of Xinjiang.
At times, it suggested the user switch topics.
“Let’s change the subject and start again,” read a prompt Reuters received over a dozen times in response to sensitive questions.
Baidu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Such answers were not confined to Xi or topics sensitive in China. The Ernie bot would also produce the same restart prompts when asked similar questions about U.S. President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump.
The bot however, was able to give long answers to some questions about international relations, such as why U.S.-China relations have deteriorated, though it changed subjects again when asked about more controversial questions, such as whether China should use military force to reunify with Taiwan.
The strict limits on political discussion are in line with Baidu’s compliance with requests made by the government to censor the results of searches on sensitive topics.
When asked how it approaches sensitive issues, the bot said that it took into account the “relevant laws and moral standards” when judging if a topic can be “openly discussed”.
Baidu CEO Robin Li, when unveiling Ernie bot last week, said the chatbot was not perfect and called for users to be understanding of its mistakes, adding that the chatbot would improve exponentially with user feedback.
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista; Editing by Brenda Goh and Robert Birsel)