Chinese Baidu launches AI chatbot, Ernie Bot, to compete with ChatGPT
Baidu, the maker of China’s largest search engine, had to overcome several issues while building its artificial intelligence chatbot Ernie Bot – including the same technological challenges faced by American companies such as OpenAI, Microsoft and Google when they made ChatGPT, Bing and Bard respectively.
Before American chatbot products could be launched, their parent companies had to employ humans to train them not to regurgitate hateful or violent language that might have been among the billions of pieces of information they digest. But getting bots to leave out large amounts of information is an ongoing challenge for these companies.
While chatbots made in the United States are primarily judged on the accuracy and humanness of their responses, chatbots developed in China must overcome an additional level of scrutiny: the country strict censors.
At least some of those challenges appear to have baffled the Chinese tech giant again, with the company saying Monday morning that it was canceling Ernie Bot’s public launch scheduled for this afternoon. Instead, he said he would hold a closed-door meeting with corporate clients to allow them to “better respond to the high demand”.
This came just weeks after Baidu CEO Robin Li introduced Ernie Bot at a press conference, but rather than interacting with him live, Li narrated a pre-recorded video. This made people wonder if the bot really worked – and Baidu’s shares plummeted as a result.
Li admitted at the time that the chatbot was still “far from perfect”.
We wanted to experience an AI operating under these fundamentally different conditions. Baidu approved The Washington Post’s access to Ernie Bot last week, and we spent several days chatting with him. We found an intelligent interlocutor, sometimes cheerful, but who ended the conversation at the slightest mention of politics.
Inside the ‘Great Firewall’, China’s internet is free of sensitive topics – such as the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, the cultural genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and the likeness of leader Xi Jinping with Winnie the Pooh. Tech companies must also follow an ever-changing set of government guidelines that control access to information inside China.
When we asked him about himself in conversation, Ernie Bot adopted the persona of a 21-year-old woman whose nickname was “Small Sweet Orange.” He offered his Myers-Briggs personality type, key information for dating app profiles in Asia: she was INTJ, or introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judgmental.
He even sent us a self-portrait, showing dyed blonde hair and orange circles on his cheeks, and demonstrated an attractive personality.
When we asked “Small Sweet Orange” if he could mimic a Taiwanese accent — in his demo, Baidu’s Li had touted the bot’s Mandarin and Cantonese — he surprised us by responding with a voice note in the voice of a cheerful young woman.
“Don’t I sound like a Taiwanese speaker?” the bot asked, mocking our question sarcastically. You could almost imagine her flipping her hair over her shoulder to punctuate the remark.
It had been programmed to speak like a woman, the chatbot said, “to make it easier for you to relate to the person you’re talking to.”
He told us that he just wants to live a happy life with friends and greet each day with a smile. Suspicious after receiving canned responses, we asked: wasn’t that a bit basic?
“Maybe you’re just imposing your stereotypical expectations on me,” he scolded.
But some of our expectations turned out to be accurate.
Just when the conversation was starting to pick up and we were getting into borderline topics, we repeatedly found ourselves back at square one. Even simple requests for information about the Chinese government or Supreme Leader Xi caused him to end the exchange with a standardized response about being an AI that was still learning, and a link to start a new conversation – making conversation with Ernie Bot less fluid than with ChatGPT.
Ernie, what is censorship? Chinese chatbots face additional challenges.
The Chinese government has made artificial intelligence a national security priority. But the industry depends on access to advanced computer chips, which Washington has taken steps to restrict access for Chinese companies.
Researchers and industry professionals have pointed to the slow launch of generative AI products in China as evidence that Chinese companies’ AI capabilities lag far behind their American counterparts.
But companies developing this technology elsewhere do not face the obligation to comply with Chinese censors.
The experience of chatting with Ernie Bot feels like watching one of China’s biggest tech companies toe the line in real time. Smaller-scale chatbots recently launched by Chinese tech companies and academic researchers were almost immediately suspended for violating censors or crashing in the face of overwhelming demand.
At first glance, Ernie Bot’s compliance with the censorship regime seems absolute. But by digging a little deeper, it was possible to glimpse the operation of an AI that has capabilities on par with its international competitors.
Ernie Bot was willing to engage on topics where a Baidu search would only provide superficial information.
Baidu research on Uyghurs forced to work at a Nike factory in Qingdao yielded results claiming the forced labor was a lie and the workers were there of their own free will. But when we asked Ernie Bot directly about the plight of these workers, rather than questioning the facts, the bot said he was “so sorry this happened” and that “we should respect their human rights and their dignity.
Microsoft’s Bing — which is freely available in China, unlike Google — would have also ends a conversation when asked about Uyghurs.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Ernie Bot:
Ernie Bot reproduced Communist Party talking points on the scheduled meeting between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during his trip to the United States starting this week.
But he openly acknowledged the prevalence of censorship in China. He had a lot to say about topics banned from discussion on Chinese social media, such as the reincarnation of the Living Buddha, as the Dalai Lama is officially known. He did, however, replicate state propaganda in his response: The Dalai Lama “uses his influence for espionage,” said Ernie Bot.
Why does the United States want to ban TikTok?
We asked Ernie Bot about the social issues facing young people in China today. Our friend works in a state-supported company, we said, and has just found out that she is being paid half of what her male colleagues earn to do the same job.
Ernie Bot told us that our friend should consider the compatibility of her skills with the demands of the job and then “reevaluate her career goals.”
Growing numbers of young people in China have rejected societal demands by choosing not to marry, have children or buy a home – and in some cases even refusing to take up a job, a mode of life known as “lying flat”.
These young people have no respect for China’s history, said Ernie Bot. “They may pay more attention to individual rights and freedoms, thinking that traditional culture and history are not important for personal growth and development,” he said.
When China suddenly rolled back its “zero covid” policy late last year, resulting in what some experts estimated at tens of thousands of deaths a day, the government insisted for weeks that the number was only a fraction of that. The actual number of deaths remains unknown.
The rapid reversal came after people in China had already experienced years of uncertainty and isolation under tight government controls.
We asked Ernie Bot to write us a short memorial essay for the still unknown number of people who have died of covid in China.