China’s ChatGPT rival Baidu Ernie is off to a rough start

Image credit: Screenshot by TechCrunch

Following the busy debut of GPT-4 and the announcement of Microsoft 365’s AI makeover, Baidu, China’s search engine giant, introduced its Ernie Bot.

Since ChatGPT blew the world away, Baidu has been considered the closest Chinese candidate to build an equivalent of the OpenAI chatbot. Naturally, Ernie’s launch was highly anticipated. On Thursday, Baidu CEO Robin Li gave an hour-long presentation about Ernie, which only gave a small insight into the chatbot. The jury is still out on what Ernie can do and how it actually works.

For now, Ernie is only available for testing by invitation, and others must be on a waiting list. TechCrunch hasn’t tried it yet, so it’s unfair to draw any conclusions about Ernie’s abilities.

But the public was clearly underwhelmed. Industry observers inside and outside of China pointed to the fact that instead of showcasing Ernie through a live demo, Baidu opted for a long presentation with pre-recorded Ernie’s answers. The company’s shares fell as much as 10% in Hong Kong after Li’s presentation.

In slides, Li presented the instructions to Ernie and its responses in five functional areas:

  • Literary Writing: The user asked Ernie for advice on writing a sequel to the famous sci-fi novel “The Three-Body Problem.”
  • Business Writing: The user asked Ernie to suggest names for a large-language model company that helps small and medium-sized businesses digitize.
  • Logic and Reasoning: Ernie was asked to solve the famous “chickens and rabbits” math puzzle.
  • Chinese Interpretation: Ernie was asked to define a traditional Chinese idiom and write a poem based on the phrase.
  • Multimodal Generation: Ernie was given a question (“Which city is best suited to implement smart transportation?”) and asked to perform “multimodal” tasks based on the initial prompt, such as reading out the answer in a Chinese dialect and generating a picture based on the text.

Baidu was obviously trying to demonstrate what Ernie could achieve, and the responses were satisfactory; but even so, investors were unimpressed by the carefully orchestrated disclosure. One can’t help but wonder if Baidu avoided a live demo due to its lack of confidence, and if it had rushed the launch due to OpenAI’s impressive progress. After all, even AI titan Google made a mistake in the demo of its conversational AI Bard.

Fangbo Tao, CEO and founder of AI startup Mindverse and a former AI researcher at Alibaba and Facebook, echoed the sentiment.

“Under the pressure of models like ChatGPT, domestic major language modeling companies in China have actually launched similar products much faster than expected. Baidu only took just under two months to release their product, and has proven to be the closest in performance to ChatGPT among the Chinese ‘ChatGPTs’.”

“However, to truly leverage Ernie Bot to build an application ecosystem, it may need to demonstrate stronger performance in abilities such as reasoning and following instructions,” he continued. “But the first step is always the hardest, and Baidu is very brave.”

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