Here comes Bard, Google’s version of ChatGPT

Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

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Under intense pressure to compete with ChatGPT — the buzzy AI chatbot that has become a viral sensation — Google announced on Monday that it’s releasing its own “experimental conversational AI” tool, called “Bard.” The company also said it will add new AI–powered features to Google search.

Google will first give Bard access to a group of trusted external partners, according to a company blog post on Monday; it said it plans to give the public access “in the coming weeks.” What the public will have access to starting this week are search results that sometimes show AI-generated text, especially for complex queries.

While Google has for years used AI to enhance its products behind the scenes, the company has never released a public-facing version of a conversational chat product. It seems that the breakaway success of ChatGPT — the AI conversation tool created by the startup OpenAI that can auto-generate essays, poetry, and even entire movie scripts, and which amassed 100 million users just two months after it launched — has nudged Google to make this move. Google’s announcement comes a day before Microsoft is expected to announce more details on plans to integrate ChatGPT into its search product, Bing (Microsoft recently invested $10 billion in ChatGPT’s creator, OpenAI).

Since ChatGPT came out, Google has faced immense pressure to more publicly showcase its AI technology. Like other big tech companies, Google is overdue for a technological breakthrough akin to its earlier inventions like search, maps, or Gmail — and it’s betting that its next big innovation will be powered by AI. But the company has historically been secretive about the full potential of its AI work, particularly with conversational AI tools, and has only allowed Google employees to test its chatbots internally. This release is a signal that the heated competition has encouraged Google to push its work into the spotlight.

“AI is the most profound technology we are working on today,” wrote Google CEO Sundar Pichai in the Monday blog post announcing the changes. “That’s why we re-oriented the company around AI six years ago — and why we see it as the most important way we can deliver on our mission: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google’s blog post said its new AI tool, Bard, “seeks to combine the breadth of the world’s knowledge with the power, intelligence and creativity of our large language models.” Tangibly, that means it can explain new discoveries from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in a way that’s understandable for a 9-year-old, or “learn more about the best strikers in football right now, and then get drills to build your skills,” according to the company.

Other examples the company gave for Bard were that it can help you plan a friend’s baby shower, compare two Oscar-nominated movies, or get recipe ideas based on what’s in your fridge, according to the release.

All of those possibilities sound helpful and convenient for users. However, new technology tends to come with potential downsides, too. Google is one of the most powerful companies in the world whose technology attracts far more political and technical scrutiny than a smaller startup like ChatGPT’s OpenAI. Already, some industry experts have cautioned that big tech companies like Google could overlook the potential harms of conversational AI tools in their rush to compete with OpenAI. And if these risks are left unchecked, they could reinforce negative societal biases and upend certain industries like media. Pichai acknowledged this worry in his blog post.

“It’s critical that we bring experiences rooted in these models to the world in a bold and responsible way,” Pichai wrote.

That might explain why, at first, Google is only releasing its AI conversational technology to “trusted partners,” which it declined to name.

So for now, the touchpoint you’ll probably first have with Google’s conversational AI tech will be in its new search features that “distill complex information and multiple perspectives into easy-to-digest formats,” according to the company post.

As an example, Google said when someone searches a question that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, such as, “is the piano or guitar easier to learn, and how much practice does each need?” it will use AI to provide a nuanced response. One example answer, pictured below, offers two different takes for “Some say … others say” that sound more like an essay or blog post. That’s a departure from the simple answers we’re used to seeing on Google’s Q&A snippets.

At this point, these announcements seem to be just a teaser, and it sounds like Google has more to reveal about its AI capabilities. The real test of Google’s AI tech as it rolls out will be how it stacks up to ChatGPT, which has already attracted public fascination and real-life applications, including BuzzFeed using it to auto-generate quizzes, and job seekers using it to write cover letters.

Even though Google is a trillion-dollar company whose products billions of people use every day, it’s in a difficult position. For the first time in years, the company faces a significant challenge from a relative upstart in one of its core competencies, AI. The kind of AI powering chatbots, generative AI, is by far the most exciting new form of technology in Silicon Valley.

And even though Google built some of the foundations of this technology (The “T” in ChatGPT is named after a tool built by Google), it’s ChatGPT, not Google, that has led the pack in showing the world what this kind of AI is capable of. Whether Google manages to similarly capture the public’s attention with this new tool could determine whether the company will continue to be the leader in organizing the world’s information, or if it will cede that power to newer entrants.


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