China’s Baidu unveils ChatGPT rival ERNIE

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The bot performs better in Chinese compared to English and can struggle with questions that contain logical errors
The bot performs better in Chinese compared to English and can struggle with questions that contain logical errors
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Chinese search engine giant Baidu has revealed its artificial intelligence-powered chatbot ERNIE, the latest rival to OpenAI’s groundbreaking ChatGPT.

Baidu Chief Executive Robin Li said on Thursday that ERNIE, known as Weixin in Chinese, was the result of “decades of Baidu’s hard work and efforts” at a live streamed press conference held to show off the technology’s capabilities.

“In two rounds of conversation, the ERNIE bot presented its capability of mathematical logic reasoning,” Li said. “It does not only know whether the question itself is correct or not, it also provided answers and specific steps to figure out the answer.”

At the event in Beijing, Li showed ERNIE generating a conference poster and video based on a prompt, offering advice on the best location for the event among several Chinese cities, and read material in a Sichuan dialect.

Li also showed the bot answering questions about a popular Chinese science fiction novel and summarising the book’s plot.

Li said that the features, which will be integrated into Baidu’s Xiaodu smart device ecosystem, will be initially only available to a limited number of users with an ERNIE invitation code.

The bot performs better in Chinese compared to English and can struggle with questions that contain logical errors, Li said, although it can identify when something is wrong.

Unlike OpenAI’s demonstrations of ChatGPT, Baidu did not demonstrate ERNIE’s capabilities live but instead through a series of slides. The chatbot also lacks functions unveiled in the followup to Chat GPT, GPT-4, such as the ability to generate text in response to an image.

ERNIE’s launch was poorly received by investors, with Baidu’s Hong Kong-listed shares failing more than 10 per cent 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,” Chim Lee, a China tech analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.

Lee added: 

Robin Li did not demonstrate Ernie’s capacity in a non-Chinese language environment. He also admitted that Ernie’s capacity to comprehend and process English is not as good as that of Chinese comprehension. This puts it behind ChatGPT, which is able to generate responses in English, Chinese and other languages.

Baidu’s announcement comes just a day after Microsoft-backed OpenAI unveiled GPT-4, which the San Francisco-based company says is capable of “human-level performance” in certain academic areas, including the ability to pass the bar exam for prospective lawyers with a score in the top 10 percent of applicants.

Li said his “expectations for Ernie bot are closer to ChatGPT or even GPT4” and praised Baidu for launching the bot ahead of competitors such as Google and Facebook parent company Meta.

More than 650 organisations in China have plans to use ERNIE, including China CITIC Bank, the National Museum of China and the Global Times newspaper, Li said.

READ MORE | US threatens to ban TikTok if Chinese owners don't sell stakes

The Chinese government has pledged to support local AI developers and integrate the technology across Chinese industry,

Local tech giants including Alibaba, Huawei have announced plans to bring out their own versions of the technology.

Beijing’s strict internet controls have raised doubts about how AI-powered chatbots will operate in China given the technology’s reliance on information scrapped from sources online.

Still, ERNIE could find some success in China due to restrictions on OpenAI’s bots in the country, Lee said.

“Chinese technology companies have a strong capacity in finding working business models for new technologies,” he said.

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