(Feb 8): Microsoft Corp showed off plans to use new tools from startup OpenAI to improve its little-used internet search and browsing services, seeking to gain ground against market leader Google by being first to offer conversational responses powered by artificial intelligence.
The company unveiled a new version of its Bing search engine and Edge browser that incorporate technology from OpenAI, maker of the viral chatbot ChatGPT, a revamp designed to make it easier for users to create content and find answers on the web.
“This technology is going to reshape pretty much every software category,” Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella said at an event on Tuesday (Feb 7) at the company’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters. It’s “high time” innovation was restored to internet search, he said.
The new Bing, which runs on an OpenAI language model that is more advanced than the one behind ChatGPT, can be switched in and out of chat mode, and users can tap the bot to compose emails. The new Edge browser adds the AI-based Bing for chat and writing text, and it can summarise web pages and respond conversationally to queries. The answers come with citations to their sources, so users can see where the information is coming from.
A flurry of product announcements from Microsoft and Google in recent weeks comes amid a sudden intense focus on generative AI, which can generate new content from digital troves of text, photos and art. Last week Microsoft unveiled a customer-management programme that uses OpenAI text-generation tools to compose emails for salespeople, and jazzed up the premium tier of its Teams chat and meeting software with AI-written post-meeting notes.
Microsoft recently announced a multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, solidifying ties with the startup to get the inside track on its artificial intelligence models like ChatGPT and Dall-E, which have attracted millions of users in just months. Beyond search, Microsoft executives have said they want to add OpenAI’s technology into Office productivity software, security programs and video-game tools.
The new Bing search query box can accept up to 1,000 characters. In a demonstration, Microsoft vice-president Yusuf Mehdi asked the chat-based engine about events in Scottsdale, Arizona, during this weekend’s Super Bowl. The new Bing returned information about a Super Bowl week party, a culinary event and other related happenings. The souped-up service can also estimate whether an Ikea love seat will fit in a 2019 Honda Odyssey — Bing told Mehdi it wasn’t sure, and it depends on whether the second and third row of the vehicle are folded down.
Asked for an egg substitute in recipes, Bing offered several choices and the measurements of each that equals one egg. It also discussed the properties of each substitute, like which will make the recipe fluffier.
Microsoft said the new version of Bing is available now as a preview, which means users can try a limited number of queries. People can also join a waitlist for full access, which the company hopes to expand to millions in the coming weeks, Mehdi said. It also intends to bring the AI search features to rival web browsers.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman appeared at the event to tout the company’s partnership with Microsoft. “We’re so grateful to have a partner to share our vision and values of building advanced AI that is safe and will have a very positive impact on society,” he said.
Alphabet Inc’s Google, whose search engine has almost 90% of the market, uses AI but relies on an older language model. From a competitive standpoint, Google’s long-time dominance has meant the market has grown stodgy, with the 14-year-old Bing and other upstarts unable to make significant inroads. While parts of the basic page design and features from the main players have been tweaked over the years, the format for search results — a list of links — remains.
ChatGPT and other generative AI search products aim to change that, replacing links that may or may not address a user’s query with a conversational, contextual answer. The risks to this burgeoning approach are that inaccuracies or misinformation can seep into responses, and — depending on how results are presented — users may not be able to tell the source or veracity of information that the service has given as a definitive answer.
In recent months, Google’s once-vaunted AI unit has lost momentum and lately has been overshadowed by OpenAI. The larger company has been stuck, puzzling over whether or when to release its work and how to innovate without imperiling its core search and ad businesses. In December, Google employees asked CEO Sundar Pichai and AI research chief Jeff Dean about competition from ChatGPT. According to CNBC, the executives responded that unlike startups, which can quickly release new tools to the public, Google faces vast reputational risk from any mistakes or errors because it already has billions of users.
The success of ChatGPT and Microsoft’s increased investment in its developer seem to have accelerated Pichai’s timeline. Google’s management mobilised teams of researchers to respond to ChatGPT, declaring the situation a “code red” threat.
On Monday, Google said its own conversational AI service, Bard, is opening up to trusted testers, and that the company is readying the service for the public “in the coming weeks”. Bard aims to generate detailed answers when given simple prompts, such as what to make for lunch or how to plan a friend’s baby shower, Google said. The service is based on LaMDA, Google’s Language Model for Dialogue Applications system.
Google also offered a look at some AI-powered features that will soon appear in its search and are intended to offer users insights for queries where there’s no one correct answer.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has been steadily boosting its bet on artificial intelligence features, seeking to add new capabilities to existing consumer and corporate products and create new experiences. The company is investing in the space even as scales back in other ways — the company is laying off 10,000 workers and has warned of a slowdown in cloud and business software sales for the rest of the fiscal year ending in June.
While Microsoft has aligned with OpenAI, Google is also investing almost US$400 million in AI startup Anthropic, which is testing a ChatGPT rival called Claude, according to a person familiar with the matter.