Chinese tech giant Baidu publishes its answer to ChatGPT

As expected, Ernie Bot (the name means “Extended Representation from Knowledge Integration”, his Chinese name is 文心一言, or Wencin Yiyan) is particularly good at tasks specific to Chinese culture, such as explaining a historical fact or writing a traditional poem. (Li says that as a Chinese company, Baidu “should perform better than pre-trained LLMs” in terms of understanding Chinese.)

But the highlight of the product launch was Ernie Bot’s multimodal output feature, which ChatGPT and GPT-4 don’t offer (OpenAI boasts GPT-4’s ability to analyze photos of fridge contents and come up with recipe recommendations, but the model generates only text). Li demonstrated a recorded interaction with the bot in which it created an illustration of a futuristic urban transportation system, used Chinese dialect to read a text response, and edited and subtitled a video based on the same text. However, in further tests after launch, the Chinese edition failed to reproduce the video generation.

The Chinese public has been hungry for a ChatGPT alternative. Both OpenAI and the Chinese government have banned individuals in China from using the American chatbot.

But until now, Ernie Bot has only been made available to an extremely select group of Chinese creators. Companies can apply to access the API. But Baidu has not said whether the technology will be available to consumers. It is not yet clear when the bot will be integrated into other Baidu products, such as the search engine or self-driving cars, as the company has promised.

Compared to the releases of ChatGPT and GPT-4, the release of Ernie Bot was rushed. The performance did not feature any live performances, instead using five pre-recorded sessions. Lee has also repeatedly said that Ernie is still imperfect and will improve as it reaches more users. Baidu’s share price fell 6.4% on Thursday, and social media was abuzz with disappointed reactions.

Lee seemed ready for such an answer. “People have been asking me for a long time: why are you firing? [Ernie Bot] so soon? are you ready for it?’ he said during his presentation. “From what I’ve personally seen while conducting internal tests of the Ernie Bot, it’s not perfect. But why do we want to release it today? Because the market demands it.”

The race to be first

Although several ChatGPT bots have already been released by Chinese companies or researchers, none of them have produced satisfactory results. MOSS, an English-language chatbot developed by researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University, was so popular that its server crashed within a day of its launch in late February. It has yet to return. MiniMax, a Chinese startup, released a chatbot called Inspo earlier this month, but it was suspected of simply repackaging the GPT-3.5 model developed by OpenAI.

Many expected Baidu to be the first Chinese company to spearhead ChatGPT. Back in 2019, Baidu released a GPT-3 equivalent, Ernie 3.0. Last year it also released a decently powerful text-to-image model called Ernie-ViLG.

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