Baidu skips live demo in debuting China’s answer to ChatGPT

Robin Li speaks during a launch event for the company's Earnie Bot in Beijing, China. Baidu debuted its ChatGPT-equivalent but skipped a live demo of its highly anticipated AI bot. — Bloomberg

Baidu Inc debuted its ChatGPT-equivalent but skipped a live demo of its highly anticipated AI bot Thursday, disappointing viewers who had hoped for a stronger demonstration China’s highest-profile entry in a battle with the US to dominate a potentially transformative technology.

Billionaire founder Robin Li took to a Beijing stage to introduce his company’s "Ernie Bot,” a landmark moment for a search leader that’s struggled in recent years to revitalise growth. Li and technology chief Wang Haifeng were expected to pose questions in real-time to demonstrate Ernie’s capabilities, but the founder surprised viewers by showing a pre-recorded, scripted video of interactions with the AI. Baidu’s shares fell as much as 10% in afternoon trading in Hong Kong.

It’s unclear when Baidu will allow the public to interact with its version of ChatGPT, which was introduced November. The Beijing-based company is regarded as a leader in a race with the likes of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Holdings Ltd to create a next-generation platform for the world’s largest internet market. They join US names such as Microsoft Corp and Google in trying to tap the potential of so-called generative AI, after services like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Dall-E demonstrated to the public the ability to create songs and videos and provide full answers on demand.

While American companies now lead that effort, China’s should be able to catch up thanks to vast data hoards and their ability to fine-tune and roll out technology rapidly, according to industry pioneer and bestselling author Kai-Fu Lee. Collectively, they could usher in a technological revolution to dwarf the mobile age.

"Baidu is obviously the frontrunner. There will be other Chinese companies that will build similar technologies and a few startups,” the Sinovation Ventures founder told Bloomberg Television in an interview last week. But "we should also be clear that in China, there are a few other obstacles.”

Baidu and its Chinese peers will have to contend with growing US restrictions on the export of American technology, including the highest-end Nvidia Corp processors needed to train AI models. It’s unclear how those might impact development in the longer run, though experts like Lee anticipate China can come up with substitutes or find workarounds.

China’s Internet search leader has bet billions of dollars on AI in a long-term quest to reinvent itself from an online marketing firm to a provider of deeper technology. Its Ernie AI system – a large-scale machine-learning model that’s been trained on data over several years – will be the foundation of its own chatbot as well as other products including an image generator.

Baidu is planning to embed Ernie Bot into all of its main operations, from its flagship search app to cloud computing and autonomous-driving software. Partners from car-makers to news sites also said they’ll use Baidu’s tool in their businesses.

Integrating Ernie Bot with online search will likely reverse Baidu’s ad market share loss, just as the company benefits from a recovery in sectors like travel and healthcare, Macquarie analysts including Esme Pau wrote in a Tuesday note. It has gained roughly 20% or more than US$7bil (RM31bil) in market value this year, outperforming most of its Chinese Internet peers.

"We expect new commercial and monetisation strategies in the months following the Ernie Bot launch to be key catalysts,” they wrote.

Earlier this week, Baidu told some of its 40,000 workers to participate in a trial run of Ernie Bot under confidentiality agreements, according to employees who got the invitation. Such testing could offer crucial last-minute feedback to fine-tune the AI before its rollout.

The consequences of a botched launch could be dire. Shares of Google owner Alphabet Inc plunged in February after its Bard answered incorrectly during a demonstration, sparking concerns it had fallen technologically behind. On Wednesday, OpenAI unveiled a new language model underpinning its seminal ChatGPT, saying it will improve accuracy and safety of the tool.

Internally, Baidu execs think Ernie Bot has reached the same level of ChatGPT when the latter debuted in November, but Ernie’s edge lies in its understanding of the Chinese language and culture, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing private information.

Apart from accuracy concerns, Baidu and its domestic peers also have to make sure their AI bots don’t run afoul of Chinese regulators and censors. ChatGPT isn’t available directly in China, and online platforms including Tencent’s WeChat have shut down local developers who plugged the tool into their own services.

It’s too early to tell whether Ernie Bot could rise to the level of WeChat or Alibaba’s dominant Taobao. While Baidu over the years struggled to commercialise its AI technology in the mobile era, its bigger rivals won over users with more consumer-friendly products.

"The development of AI technology is at a turning point, where it will inevitably change all kinds of businesses and industries,” Li told employees in February. – Bloomberg

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