China's Baidu plans to launch ChatGPT – style bot ERNIE in March: company
Move marks Chinese firm’s foray into global generative AI field
Published: Feb 07, 2023 09:15 PM
Virtual figures on the platform of Baidu Intelligent Yunxiling Photo: Courtesy of Baidu

Virtual figures on the platform of Baidu Intelligent Yunxiling Photo: Courtesy of Baidu

Chinese tech company Baidu is expected to launch a ChatGPT-style bot, named ERNIE Bot, which will open for public use in March, making it the first among its Chinese counterparts in joining a global race in the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot sector after OpenAI's ChatGPT prompted widespread attention.

"ERNIE is doing a sprint before finally going online," Baidu told the Global Times on Tuesday, noting that its ERNIE Bot may start "beta testing earlier to keep up with Google and Microsoft."

The announcement prompted Baidu's Hong Kong-listed shares to jump more than 15 percent on Tuesday. 

ERNIE, meaning "Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration," is an AI-powered language model with deep semantic understanding and generation capabilities across modalities and languages, according to Baidu.

Powered by knowledge-enhanced cross-modal models, ERNIE can accurately understand the semantics and mapping relationships in language and images, integrating learning from cross-modal knowledge such as language and vision, Wang Haifeng, Baidu's chief technology officer, said at the company's annual flagship developer conference Baidu Create 2022 in January.

Insiders close to the matter told the Global Times that Baidu's work on the bot may have started in September last year, when CEO Robin Li said the development of AI has shown "directional changes at both the technical level and the commercial application level." 

In a statement sent to the Global Times on Tuesday, Baidu said that ChatGPT is a milestone and watershed in AI development, which means that AI technology has reached a critical point, and it called for an early development of the emerging technology.

The Chinese search engine giant, along with Alibaba Group and Tencent, forms China's trinity of tech giants known as BAT. It has been investing heavily in AI for years in the fields of self-driving cars and chips designed to power AI applications.

With a full-stack layout in the four-layer AI architecture, including the underlying chips, deep-learning framework, large models, and top-layer search applications, Baidu has a grasp of all ChatGPT-related technology, indicating tech strength among rivals in the arena, Liu Dingding, a veteran industry analyst, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Baidu's move also represents the first presence of a Chinese tech company amid global giants' rush into the sector. Google and Microsoft have all "fought for an early launch."

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai announced in a blog post on Monday that the company will be launching a conversational AI service named Bard, which will be available for user testing before its public release in the near future. Pichai also stated that Google is planning to integrate AI features into its search engine to provide synthesized results for complex queries.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has integrated OpenAI's image-generating software into its Bing search engine, according to Reuters.

"Baidu may primarily focus on the Chinese language, environment and market, making it different from other global giants," Liu said.

Beyond Baidu, industry players told the Global Times a growing number of large and small companies are also developing bots, with some eyeing launches within this year. But they said that considering its combined strength, Baidu could be the most likely rival to global giants.

ChatGPT is currently not available in China, but topics related to the bot have been a buzz on social medial for months, with many centered around whether Chinese tech firms can outperform their US counterparts.

In the face of competition from foreign companies, domestic companies can explore catching up with ChatGPT in terms of algorithm experiences, analysts said.

Because of the differences between the internet environments, Chinese companies "have a market for success," Pan Helin, joint director of the Research Center for Digital Economics and Financial Innovation affiliated with Zhejiang University's International Business School, told the Global Times.

Analysts said that Chinese tech enterprises also have unique advantages in expanding AI application scenarios globally.

China has made significant progress in developing the AI industry. China's Intellectual Property (IP) office received 1.59 million of the total 3.4 million patent applications filed worldwide in 2021, according to a World Intellectual Property Indicators (WIPI) report released in November.

Patents filed in China are similar in magnitude to the combined total of the next 12 countries ranked from second to 13th, according to the WIPI, which compiled its latest data based on information provided by some 150 countries and regions.