Baidu, the maker of China’s biggest search engine, has had to overcome multiple problems while building its artificial intelligence chatbot Ernie Bot — including the same technological challenges that faced American firms such as OpenAI, Microsoft and Google when they were making ChatGPT, Bing and Bard respectively.
Before the American chatbot products could be released, their parent companies needed to employ humans to train them not to regurgitate hateful or violent speech that may have been among the billions of pieces of information they digested. But getting the bots to leave out large swaths of information is an ongoing challenge for these companies.
The Chinese government has made artificial intelligence a priority for national security. But the industry depends on access to advanced computer chips, which Washington has taken steps to restrict Chinese companies’ access to.
Researchers and industry professionals have pointed to the slow release of generative AI products in China as evidence that Chinese companies’ AI capabilities lag far behind their American counterparts.
But the companies developing this technology elsewhere do not face the requirement of complying with China’s censors.
First, who is Ernie Bot?
When we asked it to tell us about itself during one conversation, Ernie Bot adopted the persona of a 21-year-old woman whose nickname was “Small Sweet Orange.” It volunteered her Myers-Briggs personality type, a key piece of information for dating app profiles in Asia: She was INTJ, or introverted, intuitive, thinking and judging.
It even sent us a self-portrait, showing dyed blonde hair and orange circles on her cheeks, and demonstrated a flirty personality.
Is this a big enough step for the Chinese market?
There’s a popular phrase in China’s science and tech world today: 弯道超车, to overtake another car on a bend. While it’s clear that the US is still the world leader in science and innovation, the Chinese government and companies often hope that with the advantage of a large market, more accessible data, and direct government support, they can quickly bridge the technology gap in a short amount of time and even overtake the US. Artificial intelligence is one area the Chinese tech industry is targeting, and even the US side has become worried about competition.
Lost in translation
During the first two years of the pandemic, Chinese insurance companies popularized “covid insurance”—people can pay a one-time premium of a few bucks and get thousands of dollars back if they catch covid. But as journalist Yu Meng wrote in the Chinese publication Connecting, it can be extremely hard to get that payout.
Yu bought covid insurance at the beginning of 2022 and tested positive on an at-home antigen test in December, during a national wave of infections after China loosened its pandemic control measures. The insurance company gave her a number to call, but no one answered. Yu reports there are at least 60,000 more people who filed a claim with the same company. Some called dozens of times a day, and some sued the company. Some filed complaints with China’s insurance regulator. But very few people actually got paid in the end.
Mr. Lie wording
Li said that 650 companies have already signed up to use ERNIE Bot's technology, but he also admitted that it's not ready for a public debut. Baidu has merely unveiled it early due to market demand brought about by ChatGPT's meteoric rise in popularity. For now, the Chinese tech giant will only grant access to those who've already received invites, though more companies can apply for the ability to embed the chatbot into their products via Baidu's cloud platform.
Even kids can’t escape the AI craze now. Recently, the local government in China’s eastern province Zhejiang announced it would incorporate more artificial-intelligence education into the grade school and middle school curricula. How intense the lessons will be is still unclear, but I’m wondering: will we come full circle and see Chinese kids using Ernie Bot to do their homework on Ernie Bot?