China’s response to ChatGPT makes artificial debut and disappoints

China’s response to ChatGPT makes artificial debut and disappoints

China's response to ChatGPT makes artificial debut and disappoints

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Nearly six years ago, a Google computer program knocked down China’s — and the world’s — best player at Go, an ancient Chinese board game. The defeat catalyzed China’s artificial intelligence revolution. Beijing has rolled out a monumental AI plan and investors have poured record sums into new projects.


Now, a similar moment has arrived: the rise of ChatGPT has started another AI arms race, this time in the realm of machine-generated content. On Thursday, ChatGPT’s first major Chinese rival was unveiled in Beijing by search giant Baidu. But the debut of the bot, called Ernie, was a flop.

Halfway through a demonstration that had been marketed live, in which Ernie summarized a science fiction novel and analyzed a Chinese idiom, Robin Li, Baidu’s chief executive, said the presentation had been pre-recorded “to win time”.

Baidu shares plunged 10% in Hong Kong, a stark contrast to this year’s rally which was fueled by the company’s announcement that it had a ChatGPT rival in the works since 2019.

The botched rollout comes as Baidu and Google race to catch up with ChatGPT, the maker of which released a new version this week. It was also a sign that China still had some work to do to catch up with the United States in artificial intelligence, a race that has only intensified in recent years as relations between the two countries were deteriorating. As Washington moved to contain competition from China, it cut Beijing off from high-end computer chips – a key ingredient in technologies like ChatGPT and Ernie.

Due to huge computing needs, only a handful of companies, mostly based in the United States or China, have the ability to build bots that rely on so-called large language models. Microsoft has invested billions of dollars in OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT.

Baidu’s bot, whose name comes from Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration, was to be open to select users from Thursday.

Ernie, Li insisted, was not a “tool for Sino-American tech competition”. But he also acknowledged that the success of ChatGPT has accelerated Baidu’s rollout schedule.

But even before Ernie’s disappointing start, many Chinese wondered why, despite billions of dollars poured in by their government and venture capitalists, the nation hadn’t bounced back from its humiliation in 2017, when the program Google’s AlphaGo had beaten Go champion Jie Ke.

“China is incredibly good at scaling up an existing invention, but it’s not very good at making breakthroughs,” said Huang Yasheng, a management professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of an upcoming book on technology. Chinese innovation. The country, he argued, lacks the diversity of thought and free expression of ideas that help nurture original thinking.

Last month, Chinese authorities suspended ChatYuan, one of the first chatbots in China, for providing, among other things, answers that challenged the Communist Party’s official position on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Xu Chenggang, a senior fellow at the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions, had a harsher assessment of Beijing’s efforts to build a better bot.

Chinese chatbots “cannot approach the level of ChatGPT,” Xu said, as China’s strict censorship rules could hurt data quality and hamper chatbot development.

“If there are restrictions anywhere in your algorithm configuration, of course its capacity will be limited,” he said.

Chinese officials have also worked to temper expectations. Wang Zhigang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology, this month used a soccer analogy to express the work that still needs to be done to compete with ChatGPT.

“Playing football involves dribbling and shooting, but it’s not easy to be as good as Messi,” he said, referring to superstar Lionel Messi.

“Our country has also made many arrangements and conducted research in this area for many years and achieved certain results,” he added. “However, it may still take some time to reach the same level of performance as OpenAI.”


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