Baidu surges as hope mounts over Chinese answer to ChatGPT

Baidu has spent billions researching AI in a years-long effort to transition from online marketing to deeper technology. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING – Baidu surged more than 15 per cent after affirming it was on track to publicly roll out its ChatGPT-like service in March, stoking anticipation around potentially China’s most prominent entry in the race to create lifelike artificial intelligence (AI) bots.

Its shares gained the most in about eight months after the company said it was naming the service “Wenxin Yiyan”, or “Ernie Bot” in English. Internal testing should be completed in time for next month’s launch, Baidu said in a statement.

News of Baidu’s foray into the red-hot generative AI arena has fired up Chinese AI-related stocks from Beijing Deep Glint Technology to Cloudwalk Technology in recent days.

The mania reflects mounting interest from investors since OpenAI’s ChatGPT debuted, drawing eye-popping investments from the likes of Microsoft. Beyond Baidu, a growing number of large and small companies are racing to try to overtake the start-up in the suddenly hot world of AI services. 

China’s largest search engine company plans to initially embed the Ernie bot into its main search services. The tool will allow users to get conversation-style search results that are similar to those from OpenAI’s popular platform.

Baidu has spent billions of dollars researching AI in a years-long effort to transition from online marketing to deeper technology. Its Ernie system – a large-scale machine-learning model that has been trained on data over several years – will be the foundation of its upcoming ChatGPT-like tool.

AI is a rare bright spot in a contracting, job-cutting tech industry. Generative AI companies – named for their ability to generate new content from digital troves of text, photos and art – are attracting vast sums of venture capital dollars. In 2022, they raised about US$920 million (S$1.2 billion) in the United States, according to PitchBook data, up 35 per cent from the year before.

In January, Microsoft agreed to pour US$10 billion into OpenAI, one of the largest start-up investments ever. In addition, less than three months into 2023, multiple generative AI companies have raised or are in talks to raise upwards of US$700 million cumulatively, according to reports of funding rounds.

A running list maintained by the Homebrew AI Club, a group intended as a meeting place for AI workers, counts more than 150 start-ups in the sector. BLOOMBERG

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