Baidu Chatbot: A New Milestone in China’s AI Race

Baidu, the leading search engine in China, has officially launched its chatbot, Ernie Bot, to the public on August 31, 2023, after receiving approval from the Chinese government. Ernie Bot is a generative artificial intelligence (AI) system that can answer questions, write texts, and create images based on user prompts. It is similar to ChatGPT, the popular AI chatbot developed by OpenAI, a US-based research organization.

Ernie Bot is now available for download from app stores or Baidu’s website. Users need to log in to their Baidu accounts to use the chatbot, but it is unclear if the platform is available globally. The Baidu app is available on US Android and iOS app stores but is only in Chinese. Baidu did not respond to requests for more details about the bot.

Baidu also opened a plug-in market for Ernie Bot, where users can access various applications powered by the chatbot, such as video creation, document summarization, marketing slogan generation, and more. Baidu said in a statement that it plans to launch “a suite of new AI-native apps that allow users to fully experience the four core abilities of generative AI: understanding, generation, reasoning, and memory.”

Baidu co-founder and CEO Robin Li said that the company will be able to collect “massive valuable, real-world human feedback” to improve its foundation model, also called Ernie, and bring more innovation to the Ernie Bot. The Ernie Bot has had a complicated journey, especially after Baidu’s first demo disappointed investors by using prerecorded videos1.

Baidu is among the first companies in China to get regulatory approval for the rollout of its chatbot, alongside four other AI firms: SenseTime, Baichuan Intelligent Technology, Zhipu AI, and MiniMax2. Under China’s generative AI guidelines, companies must “adhere to core values of socialism,” and all training data for foundation models has to come from sources deemed legitimate by the government1.

Baidu has been a frontrunner in China in the race to capitalize on the excitement around generative AI, the technology that underpins systems such as ChatGPT or its successor, GPT-4. The latter has impressed users with its ability to simplify coding, rapidly create a website from a simple sketch and pass exams with high marks3.

Baidu announced its own iteration of generative AI in February 2023, giving it an early advantage in China4. It unveiled Ernie Bot a month later, showing how it could generate a newsletter, come up with a corporate slogan and solve a math riddle5. Since then, competitors such as Alibaba and SenseTime have announced plans to launch their own ChatGPT-style tools6, adding to the list of Chinese businesses jumping on the bandwagon.

Alibaba introduced its chatbot, AliGenie 3.0, in April 20237, but it has not yet launched it publicly. Alibaba did not immediately respond to a request for comment on when its chatbot would be available to users. AliGenie 3.0 is expected to be integrated into Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms and smart devices8.

SenseTime launched its chatbot, SenseChat, to the public on August 31, 20239, the same day as Baidu’s Ernie Bot. SenseChat is an AI-powered social platform that allows users to chat with celebrities, historical figures, fictional characters and other users. SenseChat also claims to have image-making capabilities and natural language understanding skills10.

Baichuan Intelligent Technology and Zhipu AI also announced their public launches of their chatbots on August 3111. Baichuan’s chatbot is called Baichuan Xiaoyi (Baichuan Little One), and Zhipu’s chatbot is called Zhipu Xiaoyu (Zhipu Little Fish). Both chatbots are designed to provide personalized services and entertainment for users.

The launch of these chatbots marks a new milestone in China’s AI race with the US and other countries. Some critics say that the new offerings from Chinese firms will add fuel to an existing US-China rivalry in emerging technologies12. Baidu CEO Li has tried to shake off that comparison, saying that the company’s platform “is not a tool for the confrontation between China and the United States.”13

However, some analysts say that China still has a lot to catch up with in terms of generative AI technology. According to a report by MIT Technology Review14, Baidu’s Ernie Bot is not as sophisticated as ChatGPT or GPT-4 in terms of accuracy and creativity. The report also said that Ernie Bot’s performance in Chinese language tasks is not significantly better than ChatGPT’s, despite the latter being developed by an American company.

Baidu has acknowledged that its chatbot still has room for improvement and that it will continue to collect user feedback and data to enhance its capabilities. Baidu has also said that it will explore more applications and scenarios for its chatbot, such as education, health care, entertainment, and finance15.

Baidu’s chatbot holds the potential to introduce an unprecedented level of sensitivity in AI communications, presenting an opportunity to navigate controversial or sensitive subjects more effectively than current models. For instance, discussions surrounding social and political issues could unfold with tact and precision16.

Baidu’s chatbot also poses some challenges and risks for users and regulators. For example, the chatbot could be used to spread misinformation, manipulate opinions, or infringe on intellectual property rights. Moreover, the chatbot could raise ethical and moral questions about the role and responsibility of AI in human society17.

Baidu’s chatbot is a significant step forward for China’s AI industry and a testament to the company’s innovation and ambition. However, it also faces fierce competition from domestic and foreign rivals, as well as regulatory and social hurdles. Baidu’s chatbot is not the end of the AI race, but rather a new beginning.


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