Louise Matsakis
Louise Matsakis
Updated Mar 17, 2023, 9:17am EDT

Chinese search giant Baidu debuts AI bot, Ernie

REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo/File Photo

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The News

Chinese search engine giant Baidu debuted its highly anticipated artificial intelligence bot during a press conference in Beijing Thursday, providing an early look at how leading Chinese firms are competing with U.S. companies like OpenAI, the San Francisco-based startup behind ChatGPT.

But unlike Google and Microsoft, Baidu did not show off its new tool, dubbed “Ernie Bot,” via a live demo, a decision that caused the company’s share price to tumble 10%, though it later rebounded.

CEO Robin Li instead played a pre-recorded video, in which Ernie Bot answered questions about the Chinese science fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem,” solved a logic puzzle, and generated a marketing image and video.

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Know More

Li said that companies and individuals could begin registering for Ernie Bot Thursday, but it’s not clear when they could actually start using the tool. A spokesperson for Baidu said Wednesday that the company would not yet allow journalists to begin testing the bot.

He acknowledged that Ernie Bot “isn’t perfect,” but said Baidu was choosing to release it anyway because of market demand. He noted that the tool has “higher capabilities in Chinese language understanding” than its foreign competitors.

Li ended the press conference on a geopolitical note. “Ernie is not a tool in the U.S.-China technology competition, but the natural outcome of generations of Baidu developers pursuing a dream of using technology to change the world,” he said.

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Louise's view

There are a few different reasons Baidu may have gone the pre-recorded route. Both Google and Microsoft’s bots provided inaccurate answers during their live demos, a possibility Baidu may have decided it was better to avoid. But it’s also likely that Ernie wasn’t ready for primetime. The bot was still struggling with basic functions earlier this month and Baidu’s engineers were scrambling to fix it, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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Room for Disagreement

Even if Ernie Bot turns out to be lackluster, Baidu may benefit significantly from being the first major company to enter the Chinese market, argues Kevin Xu, author of the Interconnected tech newsletter.

During the press conference, Li said that more than 600 companies and organizations have already signed up to integrate Ernie Bot into their businesses, ranging from state media publications to a temple in Zhengzhou.

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  • The Wall Street Journal reported that Baidu employees were feeling pessimistic about Ernie Bot, and some were even selling company stock in anticipation of the program’s release.
  • Industry pioneer Kai-Fu Lee told Bloomberg he was confident that China could match the United States in artificial intelligence research. China’s internet giants are “all building large models on par with OpenAI, Microsoft, and Google” in terms of scale, he said.