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January 30, 2023updated 09 Mar 2023 10:01am

China’s Baidu ‘launching ChatGPT alternative’

The Chinese tech giant is expected to launch its own generative AI chatbot using its ERNIE 3.0 natural language model.

By Ryan Morrison

Chinese search giant Baidu is reportedly working on its own version of the hugely popular OpenAI chatbot ChatGPT. The plan will see Baidu launch its chatbot as a standalone tool then gradually merge it into its search engine, reports suggest. Answers from a user query will be displayed on the Baidu search page in addition to links, it is believed.

Baidu is investing in a range of emerging technologies including generative AI, driverless vehicles and quantum computing (Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)
Baidu is investing in a range of emerging technologies including generative AI, driverless vehicles and quantum computing. (Photo by hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Baidu is said to have spent billions of dollars researching AI, including developing massive large language models. The name of the new chatbot has yet to be revealed but it is expected to launch in March, providing conversation-style results according to a source quoted by Reuters, which first reported the news.

ChatGPT is based on a trained version of the GPT-3.5 large language model built by OpenAI. It goes beyond traditional chatbots that are focused on personal communication and provides a range of responses including code, essays and scientific reports.

The team at Baidu has built a similar model, ERNIE 3.0 Titan, which was redesigned to get significantly more parameters and complexity from a smaller framework using a large-scale text data and a knowledge graph that allows for zero-shot and few-shot learning. This allowed the team to go from the 10 billion-parameter ERNIE 3.0, to the 260bn-parameter Titan. It will use this model for its chatbot.

In comparison, GPT-3.5 which is a fine-tuned version of GPT-3 has 175bn parameters. When launching their model in December 2021 the Baidu team wrote: “We trained our model on massive unstructured data and a gigantic knowledge graph, and it excels at both natural language understanding (NLU) and generation (NLG).”

The company also recently announced an expansion of the ERNIE 3 family, including a 100bn-parameter model known as Zeus, specifically trained for natural language processing and generation which has been used as a trainer for smaller models such as ERNIE 3 Tiny.

Baidu has been lagging behind competitors in the Chinese market having struggled to adapt to the mobile era, particularly in areas such as mobile advertising, video and social media, where companies such as Tencent have thrived. To combat this, Baidu has been investing heavily in a range of new technologies including AI, cloud services, chips and driverless vehicles.

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It also has its own text-to-image tool known as Wenxin Yige similar to Stable Diffusion or DALL-E 2 but with the ability to take inputs in traditional Chinese. There is also a platform able to provide detailed responses to user inputs and it is likely this is what will drive the new ChatGPT alternative.

China is forging ahead on AI

ChatGPT is not accessible in mainland China or Hong Kong but soon after it launched some developers found ways around the restrictions to make it available as an applet within Tencent-owned social messaging app WeChat. Tencent blocked access within a month.

Microsoft recently confirmed a $10bn investment in OpenAI, with plans to incorporate ChatGPT in its Bing search engine, offering access to the API through its Azure cloud service and integrating the AI into its consumer products.

“It’s fair to say that China is already ahead of the US and others as it relates to the use of AI technology, and thus, this news of Baidu integrating ERNIE 3 into search is not surprising,” said Shelly Kramer, principal analyst at Futurum Research.

“Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has made a firm commitment to not only the development of its AI capabilities, but also to maintaining and extending its prowess over the West in AI-related tech.”

This presents a “danger” to the US and its allies, Kramer adds. She says China being the world’s leader in AI tech is “significant”, and “the efforts by the US government to limit China’s success on that front are understandable”.

The US has been using export controls to restrict the supply of semiconductors used in AI systems, meaning vendors such as Nvidia and AMD have been unable to sell their leading-edge products to customers in China.

Kramer added that she expects Beijing to find ways to mitigate the impact of the trade war. “China’s commitment to AI and what we’ve seen this country do in the past lead me to expect China, sanctions aside, to continue its forward progress on the AI front,” she says.

Read more: ASML results: Income up despite US-China semiconductor controls

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