Chinese ChatGPT rival from search engine firm Baidu fails to impress

The Chinese search engine company Baidu’s shares have fallen by as much as 10% after the company unveiled its ChatGPT-like AI software, with investors unimpressed by the bot’s display of linguistic and maths skills.

The artificial intelligence-powered ChatGPT, created by the San Francisco company OpenAI, has caused a sensation for its ability to write essays, poems and programming code on demand within seconds, prompting widespread fears over cheating or of professions becoming obsolete.

Chinese tech companies have joined the global rush to develop rival software, with Alibaba and also announcing similar projects.

But Baidu’s Ernie Bot, unveiled at a press event in Beijing on Thursday, fell short of expectations, with the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Robin Li, showing only a pre-recorded demonstration of the software’s capabilities, rather than a live interaction.

The company showed audiences a video of the bot answering questions about popular the Chinese science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem and generating a plot summary. It also showed off Ernie Bot’s algebra skills and generated audio in Sichuanese and Hakka dialects of Chinese.

Baidu’s Hong Kong-listed shares plunged immediately after the software was unveiled, sliding by more than 10% at one point. The company’s shares recovered slightly afterwards, down about 7% on Thursday afternoon.

The company launched Ernie Bot in a grand media conference in its Beijing headquarters that was livestreamed on YouTube and other platforms on Thursday. Ernie, which stands for “enhanced representation through knowledge integration”, is powered by a deep-learning artificial intelligence model developed by the company that draws on the data from its search engine.

Li said the technology was still flawed but that it was being released to meet huge customer demand. “Our expectations for Ernie Bot are close to ChatGPT, even GPT-4,” Li said, referring to Open AI’s latest chatbot technology unveiled this week.

He said about 650 companies had already signed on to become part of the chatbot’s ecosystem, which would be integrated into Baidu’s other products, as well as bolster other technology including the cloud and driverless cars.

Aimed primarily at the Chinese market, Ernie Bot’s Chinese-language understanding extends to Chinese dialects. Li in the pre-recorded videos showed how the chatbot answered questions and solved maths equations. The videos also showed the bot being asked to write a Chinese poem with a Chinese idiom, generate images and text, as well as suggest business names and slogans.

Baidu is the first Chinese tech company to launch its contender in the blossoming chatbot space. Other Chinese companies, including Bytedance and Tencent, have announced plans to launch their own AI chatbots.

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The demand generated by ChatGPT’s success prompted a race among the country’s tech companies to develop a Chinese equivalent. But China’s strict censorship and US restrictions on chip sales could limit Baidu and other Chinese companies’ AI ambitions.

ChatGPT is blocked in China, but the American software is gaining a base of Chinese users who use virtual private networks to get around the ban, deploying it to write essays and cram for exams.

Li warned against seeing the technology through the lens of US-China tensions. “Ernie Bot is not a tool of confrontation between China and the United States,” he said.

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, called for China to become more self-reliant through its own innovations in science and technology in a speech earlier this week.


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