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AI supercharges battle of web search titans

Written by  Wednesday, 08 February 2023 09:37
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Paris (AFP) Feb 7, 2023
A new generation of AI chatbots has unleashed a titanic battle between Microsoft and Google for the eyeballs of billions of web users, and the dollars they bring. Microsoft has gone all-in with a multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, the firm behind the world's most buzzy bot ChatGPT, hoping to revolutionise its unloved Bing search engine. Google has owned the search market for two d
AI supercharges battle of web search titans
By Joseph BOYLE and Laurence Benhamou
Paris (AFP) Feb 7, 2023

A new generation of AI chatbots has unleashed a titanic battle between Microsoft and Google for the eyeballs of billions of web users, and the dollars they bring.

Microsoft has gone all-in with a multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, the firm behind the world's most buzzy bot ChatGPT, hoping to revolutionise its unloved Bing search engine.

Google has owned the search market for two decades and is not ceding any ground -- it hit back this week with an in-house bot of its own, called Bard.

And the AI gold rush is not limited to Silicon Valley search giants, Chinese firm Baidu announcing its own bot this week.

But what exactly is the fight about?

Big tech firms have spent years ripping unimaginable amounts of data from the internet and churning it into so-called large language models that they use to train algorithms.

This is how voice recognition tools like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri or Google Assistant work.

Google and Facebook owner Meta have poured their efforts into tools that can translate hundreds of languages, screen for harmful content, or target users with personalised ads.

Yet the fundamentals of search have remained largely unchanged.

You punch a few words into Google and it spits back a mix of useful links and often less useful ads.

But if AI has its way, these familiar pages of blue links could soon be just another dusty corner of internet history.

- 'Relegated to history' -

"A tool like ChatGPT can create search engines that give a structured answer to questions instead of simply a list of documents like Google does at the moment," said Thierry Poibeau of French research institute CNRS.

What that means in practice is that future search engines will not produce lists of links -- instead they will give the user coherent and full answers using multiple sources.

Neeva, a search engine that markets itself as privacy friendly, is already pushing this kind of experience.

Neeva founder Sridhar Ramaswamy, a former Google executive, told AFP that smaller companies were much better placed to innovate.

"We use large language models to look at all of the pages that are going to result for a query and show you a summary, and then show you a very rich visual experience," he said.

Like many analysts, Ramaswamy was highly critical of his former firm's obsession with ads, which he claimed was ruining the experience of users.

Industry analyst Rob Enderle said Google's search business risked being torpedoed by innovations in AI.

"Google still largely lives off the fact their search engine is the most widely used," he said.

But these changes could "relegate them to history".

However, there is still a long way to go before AI chatbots successfully wed themselves to search engines.

- Racist bots -

"Tools like chatGPT provide the illusion of an all-knowing being answering your questions, but that's not true," said Claude de Loupy of French AI text firm Syllabs.

Social media is overflowing with comical examples of ChatGPT's failings, not least its lack of ability in basic maths.

It has also been accused of bias after it refused to generate a poem praising Donald Trump but was more than happy to pen a paean to his successor as US president, Joe Biden.

There are questions about the sources the bots are trained on, the people who are employed in often terrible conditions to program them, copyright issues around pictures and the ultimate question of how firms will monetise their new toys.

However, OpenAI has largely managed to clear up one vital aspect that has plagued such bots -- it is very difficult to get ChatGPT to say offensive things.

Microsoft got burnt in 2016 when its teenage AI chatbot Tay was immediately jumped on by Twitter users who got it to spout racist comments.

Meta was similarly embarrassed last year when it launched an AI tool called Galactica.

It was intended to help academics to write papers but had to be withdrawn after it invented citations and could be asked to write racist tracts.

Microsoft sees 'new day' in war with Google over AI search engines
Redmond, United States (AFP) Feb 7, 2023 - Microsoft's long-struggling Bing search engine will integrate the powerful capabilities of language-based artificial intelligence, CEO Satya Nadella said on Tuesday, declaring what he called a new era for online search.

"It's a new day for search... The race starts today," Nadella said at a launch event, marking the start of what Microsoft hopes will be an unprecedented challenge to Google's two-decade dominance of the search engine market, using the technology created by the developers of AI bot ChatGPT.

"This technology is going to reshape pretty much every software category," Nadella added at the event at Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, headquarters.

ChatGPT has sparked a gold rush in artificial intelligence technology (AI) with more than 100 million users testing the bot's capabilities, receiving essays, speeches, or law exam results within seconds to the consternation of educators and school authorities worried about cheating.

Microsoft hopes that beefing up Bing with ChatGPT-like qualities will radically update online search by providing ready-made answers using multiple sources instead of the familiar list of links to outside websites.

In its new format, Bing would review results from across the web and summarize them instead of merely presenting a list of links that the user must click and choose from.

"We applied the AI model to our core search ranking engine, and we saw the largest jump in relevance in two decades," said Yusuf Mehdi, a Microsoft vice president.

On more complex searches, like planning a trip or buying a TV, an interactive chat mode would appear, asking for details on what is being requested.

The new Bing will more directly ape ChatGPT with a so-called creative option, in which the search engine will help the user write an email or prepare for a job interview, but unlike ChatGPT, always citing its sources, Microsoft said.

The new Bing will run on an OpenAI language model that is more advanced than the one behind ChatGPT, meaning that responses would be more up to date and benefit from stronger computing power.

Microsoft's Edge browser will also get souped up by AI features, including with summaries of web pages or ideas for social media posts based on a few inputs.

OpenAI, which developed ChatGPT, is a California-based startup founded in 2015, with early funding from Elon Musk among others. Microsoft invested $1 billion in OpenAI in 2019 and just inked a new multi-billion deal with the firm.

Search is Google's golden cash cow and any serious challenge to its dominance seemed unthinkable until ChatGPT burst onto the scene two months ago.

Google's search engine holds 84 percent of the global market share, bringing in tens of billions of dollars in ad sales every quarter and making up more than two thirds of the tech giant's total revenue. Bing's market share stood at nine percent last year.

"Competition is what really breeds innovation. And at the end of the day, that's what we're doing today," said Jordi Ribas, a Microsoft vice president who has been working on Bing for 15 years.

- 'Shot across the bow' -

According to reports, Google declared ChatGPT's massive success a "code red" threat to the company with teams reassigned to brainstorm a swift answer and accelerate ongoing research on AI.

Spooked by the unexpected rivalry, Google on Monday preempted Microsoft's announcement and said that it was about to deliver its own version of ChatGPT, a bot named Bard that would also provide near immediate answers upon request.

Chinese search engine giant Baidu on Tuesday said it was preparing to put out an AI-powered chatbot, named "Ernie Bot," though the launch date was unknown.

"We view this as the first shot across the bow in this Big Tech AI battle that is set to hit its next gear of investments over the coming months with Microsoft now leading the race," said Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities.

Despite the new arms race in Big Tech, ChatGPT and similar bots continue to make mistakes and it remains unclear whether the technology, known as generative AI, will be able to completely supplant search as we currently know it.

Google has already integrated more conversational techniques into its search engine, and on Monday said it will roll out more features based on ChatGPT-like technology in the coming weeks.

Before the release of ChatGPT, OpenAI had wowed tech geeks with Dall-E 2, a software that creates digital images with a simple instruction.

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