Following on the heels of GPT-4’s buzzy debut and the announcement of Microsoft 365’s AI makeover, Baidu, China’s search engine giant, introduced its Ernie Bot.

Since ChatGPT blew the world away, Baidu has been widely considered the closest Chinese candidate to build an equivalent to the OpenAI chatbot. Naturally, Ernie’s launch was much anticipated. On Thursday, Baidu CEO Robin Li gave a one-hour presentation on Ernie that only offered a small glimpse into the chatbot. The jury is still out on what Ernie can do and how it actually works.

For now, Ernie is only available for testing through invitation and others need to get on a waitlist. TechCrunch hasn’t tried it yet, so it’s unfair to draw any conclusions about Ernie’s capability.

But the public was clearly underwhelmed. Industry observers inside and outside China pointed to the fact that rather than showcasing Ernie through a live demo, Baidu opted for a lengthy presentation with pre-recordings of Ernie’s answers. The company’s shares slumped as much as 10% in Hong Kong following Li’s presentation.

In slides, Li presented the prompts for Ernie and its answers in five functional areas:

  • Literature writing: The user asked Ernie for advice on writing a sequel to the celebrated sci-fi novel “The Three-Body Problem.”
  • Business writing: The user asked Ernie to suggest names for a large-language model company that helps small-and-medium enterprises digitize.
  • Logic and reasoning: Ernie was asked to solve the famous “chickens and rabbits” math puzzle.
  • Chinese interpretation: Ernie was asked to define a traditional Chinese idiom and write a poem based on the phrase.
  • Multi-modal generation: Ernie was given a question (“Which city is most suited for implementing smart transport?”) and asked to perform “multi-modal” tasks based on the initial prompt, such as reading the answer out in a Chinese dialect and generating an image based on the text.

Baidu evidently did try to demonstrate what Ernie could achieve, and the answers were satisfactory; but still, investors weren’t impressed by the carefully orchestrated reveal. One can’t help but wonder if Baidu avoided a live demo due to its lack of confidence, and whether it had rushed the launch because of OpenAI’s impressive advancement. After all, even AI titan Google made a mistake in the demo of its conversational AI Bard.

Fangbo Tao, CEO and founder of AI startup Mindverse and a former AI scientist at Alibaba and Facebook, echoed the sentiment.

“Under the pressure of models like ChatGPT, domestic large language model companies in China have indeed launched similar products much faster than expected. Baidu only took just under two months to release their product, and has shown to be the one closest in performance to ChatGPT among the Chinese ‘ChatGPTs’.”

“However, to truly leverage Ernie Bot to build an application ecosystem, it may be necessary to demonstrate stronger performance in abilities like reasoning and following instructions,” he continued. “But the first step is always the hardest, and Baidu is very courageous.”


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