Billionaire and Baidu CEO Robin Li officially unveiled the Chinese search giant’s response to ChatGPT on Thursday, as his company seeks to outperform domestic rivals in developing conversational artificial intelligence technologies, which have recently taken by storm the world’s second largest economy.

At a highly anticipated event at Baidu’s Beijing headquarters, Li, 54, took the stage and introduced the company’s chatbot service, Ernie Bot. But instead of a live demonstration, audiences only saw videos of Ernie Bot performing a range of prepared and pre-recorded tasks, including answering questions about a popular novelist, composing press releases and working on mathematical problems.

Participants therefore did not have the opportunity to interact with Ernie Bot in real time, although the company said the service would be available to a select group of users from Thursday. Baidu shareholders were unimpressed with the launch; its Hong Kong-listed shares fell 10% in afternoon trading, before paring the day’s losses to 6.4%.

“In our internal tests and from what I have experienced, our bot cannot be called perfect,” Li said. “But why are we launching it now? This is because we have seen the market demand.

Kenny Ng, Hong Kong-based securities strategist at Everbright Securities, said the market initially had “very high” hopes for Baidu, whose shares rallied when it was first revealed that the company was working on a ChatGPT-like project. Li, who currently has a net worth of $7.8 billion, has a lot at stake. On an analyst call in February, he said Ernie Bot would be gradually integrated into a range of services from Baidu, starting with the search engine and later with his video site iQiyi.

The tycoon is banking on AI to diversify and revitalize growth, as Baidu in recent years has lagged rivals in market influence. In the fourth quarter of last year, the company generated a better-than-expected revenue of $4.8 billion, but more than half of the sales came from online marketing. As China’s economic growth slows, the sector has seen even stiffer competition as gaming and social media giant Tencent and Tik Tok owner ByteDance seek to attract brands to their own platforms.

Baidu, in a press release, said Ernie Bot excelled in areas such as business writing and Chinese language comprehension. Li says the bot will improve after receiving feedback from users, which in theory will allow the company to train the algorithm to meet their demands. Ernie Bot’s launch came just two days after OpenAI unveiled ChatGPT-4, which builds on its predecessor ChatGPT but comes with even more powerful features such as processing not only text but also images. . Backed by Microsoft, OpenAI says it has also trained the latest version to be more secure and to avoid giving answers that could be deemed misleading or inappropriate.

But the upstart hasn’t made its service available in China, where Baidu’s domestic rivals from Tencent to e-commerce giant Alibaba are all catching up and rushing to develop ChatGPT-like projects. Li did not address the legal aspect, but any similar service in the country would have to steer clear of sensitive topics and abide by strict local rules. According to a recent test by the Wall Street Journal, a number of chatbots from smaller Baidu rivals have already refused to answer questions about China’s leaders.

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