Microsoft is fusing ChatGPT-like technology into its Bing search engine, transforming an internet service that now lags far behind Google into a new way of communicating with artificial intelligence.
The revamp of Microsoft’s second search engine could give the software giant an edge over other tech companies by capitalizing on the worldwide excitement around ChatGPT, a tool that has awakened millions of people to the possibilities of the latest AI technology.
In addition to adding it to Bing, Microsoft is also integrating chatbot technology into its Edge browser. Microsoft announced the new technology at an event on Tuesday at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
“Think of it as faster, more accurate, more powerful” than ChatGPT, built on technology from OpenAI, makers of ChatGPT, but tuned for search queries, Yusuf Mehdi, a Microsoft executive who leads its consumer division, said in an interview.
A public preview of the new Bing launched on Tuesday for desktop users who sign up, but Mehdi said the technology will roll out to millions of users in the coming weeks and eventually make its way to smartphone apps for Bing and Edge. For now, everyone can try a limited number of queries, he said.
The empowerment partnership with OpenAI has been in the making for years, starting with a $1 billion (about Rs. 8,300 crore) investment by Microsoft in 2019 that led to the development of a powerful supercomputer purpose-built to train the San Francisco startup’s AI models.
While not always factual or logical, ChatGPT’s mastery of language and grammar comes from having ingested a huge trove of digitized books, Wikipedia entries, instruction manuals, journals and other online writings.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said on Tuesday that the new advances in AI “will reshape every category of software we know”, including search, as well as previous innovations in personal computers and cloud computing. He said it was important to develop AI “with human preferences and social norms and you’re not going to do it in a lab. You have to do it in the world.”
The move to make search engines more conversational – able to confidently answer questions rather than offering links to other sites – may change the business of ad-fueled search, but it also poses risks if AI systems don’t get the facts right. Its opacity also makes it difficult to source back to the original human-made images and text they actually memorized, although the new Bing includes annotations that reference the source data.
“Bing is powered by AI, so surprises and mistakes are possible,” is a message that appears at the bottom of the preview version of Bing’s new homepage. “Be sure to check the facts.”
As an example of how it works, Mehdi asked the new Bing to compare the most influential Mexican painters and provided typical search results, but also, on the right side of the page, compiled a fact box summarizing details about Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Jose Clemente Orozco. In another instance, he quizzed him on 1990s rap, showing his ability to distinguish between the song “Jump” by Kris Kross and “Jump Around” by House of Pain. And he used it to show how he could plan a vacation or help with shopping.
Gartner analyst Jason Wong said the new technological advances will mitigate what led to Microsoft’s disastrous 2016 launch of the experimental chatbot Tay, which trained users to make racist and sexist comments. But Wong said “reputation risks will still be at the forefront” for Microsoft if Bing produces responses with low accuracy or so-called “hallucinations” from AI that mix and match data.
Google has been cautious about such moves. But in response to pressure on ChatGPT’s popularity, Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Monday announced a new chat service called Bard that will be available exclusively to a group of “trusted testers” before being widely rolled out later this year.
Wong said Google was taken aback by the success of ChatGPT, but still has an advantage over Microsoft in consumer-facing technology, while Microsoft has an advantage in selling its products to businesses.
Chinese tech giant Baidu also this week announced a similar search chatbot that will launch later this year, according to Chinese media. Other tech rivals like Facebook parent Meta and Amazon have been researching similar tech, but Microsoft’s latest moves are aimed at positioning it at the center of the ChatGPT zeitgeist.
Microsoft disclosed in January that it was investing billions of dollars more in OpenAI as it seeks to merge the technology behind ChatGPT, the DALL-E imager and other OpenAI innovations into a series of Microsoft products tied to its cloud computing platform and its Office suite of workplace products such as email and spreadsheets.
Most surprising may be the integration with Bing, which is the No. 2 search engine in many markets but has never come close to challenging Google’s dominance.
Bing launched in 2009 as a rebranding of Microsoft’s previous search engines and was managed for a time by Nadella, years before he took over as CEO. Its importance increased when Yahoo and Microsoft signed an agreement for Bing to power Yahoo’s search engine, giving Microsoft access to Yahoo’s largest search share. Similar agreements infused Bing into the search capabilities of devices made by other companies, although users didn’t necessarily know that Microsoft was powering their searches.
By making it a destination for ChatGPT-like conversations, Microsoft could invite more users to try Bing, although the new version is so far limited to desktops and still lacks an interface for smartphones – where most people now access the internet.
On the surface, at least, an integration with Bing looks very different from what OpenAI has in mind for its technology. Attending Microsoft’s event, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said “the new Bing experience looks fantastic” and is based in part on learnings from its GPT line of great language models.
OpenAI has long expressed an ambitious vision to safely guide what is known as AGI, or artificial general intelligence, an as yet unrealized concept that harkens back to science fiction ideas about human-like machines. OpenAI’s website describes AGI as “highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at the most economically valuable job”.
OpenAI started as a non-profit research lab when it launched in December 2015 with backing from Tesla CEO Elon Musk and others. Its stated goals were “to advance digital intelligence in the most likely way to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by the need to generate financial returns”.
That changed in 2018, when it incorporated a for-profit business Open AI LP and moved nearly all of its staff into the business, shortly after releasing its first generation of the GPT model for generating human-like paragraphs of readable text.
OpenAI’s other products include the DALL-E imager, first released in 2021, the Codex computer programming assistant, and the Whisper speech recognition tool.