22 Mar Google’s catch-up game on AI continues with Bard launch
By Gerrit De Vynck and Nitasha Tiku
Google has made its long-awaited AI chatbot, called Bard, available to the public in the US and UK; an attempt to regain its leadership in the most competitive and high-profile new technology in years.
The bot, which is based on tech that has been under development by the company for eight years, can answer questions, write text and have informative conversations on nearly any subject. But in a sign that Google is proceeding more cautiously than its rivals — something that has spurred internal tension among the company’s own employees — Bard will have a separate website and won’t immediately be prominently promoted through Google Search or the company’s other popular products.
“Bard is really here to help people boost their productivity, accelerate their ideas, and just fuel their curiosity,” said Sissie Hsiao, a vice president at Google and one of the executives working on Bard.
In a blog post, Google said it would eventually make the bot available in other countries, but gave no specific timeframe.
The company is months behind some competitors in rolling out the first version of its chatbot to the public, critical time that competitors have used to tweak their products. OpenAI, a start-up that developed ChatGPT, has allowed users to test its version since November and last week released its most cutting-edge technology, GPT-4. Microsoft rolled out a similar tool in its Bing search engine in February.
But OpenAI and Microsoft’s AI chatbots, which are based on the same technology, have also made mistakes and exhibited bizarre behaviour, like Microsoft’s Bing identifying itself as “Sydney” and getting into hostile arguments with people asking it questions. That’s exposed the companies to criticism that the technology isn’t ready for widespread use. Google has tested its AI on employees for years — which one engineer at the time claimed had become sentient — but has erred on the side of caution with the public.
Still, Google’s slower pace has sparked frustration among some employees, who say the company has dropped the ball on generative artificial intelligence, the broad term for technology that uses powerful algorithms trained on huge portions of the internet to produce original content, from eerily humanlike text to vivid artwork.
Some blame Google’s slow start on concerns that the technology could hurt the company’s reputation if it’s released before it’s fully ready for public consumption, according to people familiar with internal discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share information that has not been made public. Other AI leaders, like Meta’s chief artificial intelligence scientist Yann LeCun, have said tools released by the bigger tech companies have appeared to be less interesting and capable than ones released by smaller start-ups because they have more guardrails to prevent offensive or harmful outcomes.
Though Google and other companies have worked on the tech for years, and some of the computer science behind the latest products was theorised decades ago, the bots continue to surprise their creators as well as regular people with what they can do.
“Things are moving pretty fast,” said Larry Birnbaum, a computer science professor at Northwestern University who focuses on AI. “Even the people who work on these machines, many of them have been quite surprised by their capabilities.”
Google’s CEO has called AI “more profound than fire or electricity” and Big Tech companies like Google are scrambling to ride the wave and assure their dominance over the internet and tech development isn’t threatened by the disruptive technology.
When Microsoft unveiled that its own chatbot was named Bing — after its search engine — and would become a key part of the company’s search tool, concerns from investors that Google was falling behind in its core business began growing.
But replacing search with chatbots would upend the massive economy of content creators and advertisers that Google has helped create with its search engine.
Countless news organisations, bloggers and other web publishers rely on traffic from Google search, and the entire search engine optimisation industry has sprung up to help publishers understand Google’s opaque and ever-changing search algorithm.
The tech giant also relies on a thriving internet to give people things to search for in the first place, bringing in consumers for it to track and target with advertising.
Chatbots from Google’s competitors are already being used by millions of people to draft essays and reports, screen potential romantic partners and write computer code. Images made by AI tools like OpenAI’s DALL-E and Stability AI’s Stable Diffusion have flooded social media for months, drawing wonder and consternation, while triggering debates on what it means to be an artist and how copyright laws should be applied to AI-generated content. Venture capitalists are pouring billions of dollars into AI start-ups, even as the rest of the tech funding ecosystem retrenches.
Google’s Bard is very similar to the bots released by Microsoft and OpenAI. Users type in a question in a text box, and the bot responds with answers. The number of questions and responses are capped to prevent the bot from being prodded into developing a combative personality, as happened with Microsoft’s Bing chatbot after users had multi-hour conversations with it. The company also has turned off Bard’s ability to produce computer code, a key limitation compared to ChatGPT.
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