Demo of China’s Answer to ChatGPT Disappoints Investors

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Baidu Inc. debuted China’s answer to ChatGPT via a recorded video, disappointing investors hoping for a real-time demo of the country’s highest-profile entry in a race to dominate 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 revitalize growth. But instead of putting the service through its paces in real time, he talked over a scripted video of interactions with the AI. Baidu’s shares fell 6.4% in Hong Kong, wiping out about $3 billion of value.

Thursday’s launch was to have been a watershed moment for China’s technology industry, lifting the lid on how AI has progressed in the world’s largest internet economy. The omission raises questions over Ernie’s ability to match OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which has both impressed and worried users since its November launch. Chinese AI efforts lag their US rivals at the moment, though they should catch up over time thanks to vast data hoards and experience with rapid rollouts, according to industry pioneer and bestselling author Kai-Fu Lee.

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“It looks pre-recorded, and so far it’s all just Powerpoints. The demos did not look spontaneous,” said Yu Yingbo, chief investment officer at Shenzhen Qianhai United Fortune Fund Management Co. “He’s not citing anything on the database they are drawing from, or their model, or how it compares to ChatGPT. It’s all really vague and theoretical.”

Baidu will let consumers and cloud clients register for access to the AI chatbot starting Thursday, but didn’t say when they could actually use the service.

Still, 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.

“I can’t say we are fully ready. Benchmarking Ernie Bot against ChatGPT, or even GPT-4, is a high bar,” Li told reporters. “None of the Big Tech firms globally has made it. Baidu is the first one,” he said, adding his own testing experience showed the product “isn’t perfect.”

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Thursday’s letdown casts a pall over the potential for China to contribute to a technological revolution analysts have said will dwarf the mobile age. Some of the questions posed in Baidu’s videos appeared rudimentary and addressable by typical search engine services, such as: “Which part of China does the Three Body Problem author come from?”

Many users took to Chinese social media to poke fun at the event, with one user calling it a “low-energy” debut.

Baidu and its Chinese peers will now 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.

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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 $7 billion in market value this year, outperforming most of its Chinese internet peers.

“Baidu is obviously the frontrunner. There will be other Chinese companies that will build similar technologies and a few startups,” Lee, 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.”

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. That demo was also recorded.

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 commercialize its AI technology in the mobile era, its bigger rivals won over users with more consumer-friendly products.

“The shares moves show that investors are disappointed at the Ernie Bot release, as the demonstration was pre-recorded. There weren’t many things that were exciting from the launch,” said Willer Chen, senior analyst at Forsyth Barr Asia Ltd.

— With assistance from Jane Zhang, Charlotte Yang, April Ma and Low De Wei.

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