By Eduardo Baptista
BEIJING (Reuters) -Chinese search engine giant Baidu on Thursday unveiled its much-anticipated artificial intelligence-powered chatbot known as Ernie Bot, giving the world a glimpse of what could be China’s strongest rival to U.S. research lab OpenAI’s ChatGPT.
The popularity of ChatGPT, backed by Microsoft, has triggered a frenzied rush among Chinese tech giants and startups alike to develop a rival. Baidu jumped to the forefront of the race after saying early last month it was close to completing a chatbot using its AI-driven deep learning model, Ernie – short for “Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration”.
The Ernie Bot introduction, in a presentation at Baidu headquarters in Beijing, comes two days after Alphabet Inc’s Google unveiled a flurry of AI tools for its email, collaboration and cloud software. Microsoft is expected to make a similar announcement to Google later on Thursday.
“For sure we cannot say that it’s perfect,” said Baidu CEO Robin Li, presenting Ernie Bot. “So why are we unveiling it today? Because the market demands it.”
But the limited presentation of Ernie Bot, restricted to brief, pre-recorded videos, failed to match market hopes and Baidu’s Hong Kong-listed shares in the firm tumbled as much as 10% before clawing back some ground.
During the presentation, Li showed five videos of Ernie Bot answering questions on popular Chinese science fiction novel “The Three Body Problem”, carrying out mathematical calculations, understanding Chinese dialects and generating a video and image with text prompts.
“Today’s announcement is a natural continuation of the hard work we have put in over the past many years,” he said at the event, which was also livestreamed across nine platforms, including Twitter, Youtube and Weibo. Twitter and Youtube are blocked in China.
Starting Thursday, Ernie Bot will be open to an initial group of users with invitation codes, and companies can apply to embed the bot into their products via Baidu’s cloud platform.
Baidu has touted its many years of heavy R&D investment in artificial intelligence and deep learning as one reason it is best placed to lead the race to develop a Chinese answer to ChatGPT. Baidu’s research and development expenses in 2022 were 21.4 billion yuan ($3.1 billion), accounting for 22% of revenue.
Baidu plans to use Ernie Bot to revolutionise its search engine, by far the most dominant in China, as well as use it to increase efficiency in cloud, smart cars and household appliances, among other mainstream businesses.
Earlier this week, OpenAI on Tuesday said it is beginning to release a powerful artificial intelligence model known as GPT-4, describing it as “multimodel”, meaning images as well as text prompts can spur it to generate content.
Li nodded to GPT-4 during his speech, saying that its coming showed the threshold for this sort of technology was very high, and that it surprised him with its ability to summarise information.
But he also cautioned against seeing this through the lens of geopolitics. “Ernie Bot is not a tool of confrontation between China and the United States,” he said.
To date, 650 companies have said they will join the Ernie ecosystem, he added. Chinese state media outlets and a Shaolin temple were among the first sign-ups to become Ernie Bot partners.
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista; Writing by Brenda Goh; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Kenneth Maxwell)