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IF Insights: Baidu’s Ernie chatbot & China’s AI test

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OpenAI's success has invited rivalry from other tech giants like Google, Amazon, Meta, Baidu and Tencent

Sam Alatmen-led OpenAI’s ChatGPT has ushered in a new era of technological marvels, as it has changed the artificial intelligence playbook in 2023. Some are even comparing the chatbot’s impact on the global economy with the invention of the printing press. The artificial intelligence product is a large language model based on the GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) architecture.

It generates human-like responses to natural language inputs, making it a powerful tool for conversational artificial intelligence applications, including language translation, text summarisation, question answering, and even creative writing by analysing vast amounts of text data and learning patterns in language use, which it can then use to generate coherent and contextually appropriate responses, as per the user inputs.

OpenAI’s success has invited rivalry from other tech giants like Google, Amazon, Meta, Baidu and Tencent. However, Google’s Bard’s launch was unsuccessful, and ever since Microsoft bought OpenAI and integrated ChatGPT technology into Bing, Chrome has been suffering, and tech analysts and investors are wary about the popular search engine’s future.

Despite the red tape, Chinese companies continue to innovate and have released their AI much before American tech giants like Amazon and Meta.

Leading Chinese search engine Baidu has unveiled Ernie, a chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to compete with ChatGPT.

What Are Ernie’s Capabilities?

At a live-streamed news conference organised to demonstrate the capabilities of the technology on April 13, Baidu Chief Executive Robin Li stated that Ernie (Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration), known as Weixin in Chinese, was the outcome of “decades of Baidu’s hard work and efforts.”

Li demonstrated Ernie creating a conference poster and video based on a prompt at the Beijing event and recommending the finest Chinese city for the event’s location and reading material in the Sichuan dialect.

The CEO also demonstrated the chatbot answering queries and outlining the plot of a well-known Chinese science fiction novel.

The functionalities, which will be incorporated into Baidu’s Xiaodu intelligent device ecosystem, would initially only be accessible to a select group of individuals with an Ernie invitation code, according to Li.

Li claimed that although the bot can recognise something incorrect, it struggles with inquiries involving logical mistakes and performs better in Chinese than in English.

In contrast to OpenAI’s live demonstrations of ChatGPT, Ernie’s capabilities were shown by Baidu through a series of slides. Additionally, the chatbot lacks features like the capacity to produce text in response to a picture revealed in the follow-up to Chat GPT, GPT-4.

Investors did not react favourably to Ernie’s launch, and Baidu’s Hong Kong-listed shares dropped more than 10% during the pre-recorded demonstration.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty around Ernie’s capacity, especially given the lack of a live demo – a stark contrast to OpenAI’s GPT-4’s developer livestream a few days ago,” said Chim Lee, a China technology expert for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Obstacles To Growth

China is becoming increasingly Orwellian with surveillance cameras everywhere, state internet control, and a social credit system. Analysts wonder how artificial intelligence can develop in such a controlled environment and whether it will have relevant access to information.

However, it is believed that the restrictions placed on foreign AI will not cripple the advancements of state-compliant domestic players. As a result, the artificial intelligence sector from the world’s second-largest economy might still need to compete with global giants, but it can undoubtedly dominate and even monopolise billion-dollar domestic markets.

Baidu investors were disappointed that Ernie’s capabilities were presented on a slideshow instead of a live stream launch. It has even made people question the fundamentals and authenticity of the project.

But despite the backlash, the Chinese are determined to create AI that serves the Chinese ecosystem. Li said more than 650 Chinese institutions, including the National Museum of China, the Global Times newspaper, and China CITIC Bank, plan to employ Ernie.

The Chinese government has promised to assist regional AI creators and implement the technology throughout Chinese business. As a result, the local tech behemoths JD.com, Alibaba, and Huawei have planned to release their chatbots. Alibaba has even invited businesses to test its Tongyi Qianwen AI chatbot, as per media reports.

AI & Communist China

Given its authoritarian political system and strict control over information and technology, the Chinese government could use AI to crack down on its own citizens. Here are a few possibilities:

Social Credit System: China is already implementing a social credit system, which uses artificial intelligence and other technologies to monitor citizens’ behaviour and assign them scores based on their compliance with laws, regulations, and social norms. Those with low scores can face various penalties, including restrictions on travel, access to education, and employment opportunities.

Surveillance & Monitoring: China already has one of the most extensive surveillance systems in the world, with millions of cameras and other monitoring devices deployed in public spaces. Artificial intelligence could automate the monitoring and analysis of this data, allowing the government to identify and track individuals based on their behaviour and activities.

Predictive Policing: Artificial intelligence could be used to analyse data on crime and other activities to identify individuals who have been deemed a potential threat to the state, allowing the government to take preemptive action against them.

Propaganda & Censorship: Artificial intelligence could be used to generate and disseminate propaganda and disinformation and censor and control access to information on the internet.

The CCP welcomes the new technology and has even discussed AI’s potential in asymmetric cyber warfare. Whether to control or administrate the civilian population, cyber warfare, or give the domestic economy an edge, China knows that Artificial intelligence holds the key to its envisioned future.

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