Recently, Baidu became the first listed Chinese company to release its own large language model (LLM) to the public. Called the ERNIE bot, the LLM reached 1 million users in the 19 hours following the announcement, according to an MIT Tech Review article.
ERNIE was on a waitlist pending government approval, a process that is, of course, much stricter in China than in the United States. Baidu was the first of the large Chinese tech companies to pass this approval process, while a handful of smaller Chinese startups have released similar chatbots prior.
Baidu isn’t new to the generative AI world. Before releasing ERNIE, the company also offered Wenxin Yige, a text-to-image platform similar to DALL-E or Midjourney.
I say “chatbots” intentionally here. In the Western tech world, we usually refer to ChatGPT and similar tools as generative artificial intelligence (AI) and LLMs , not as “chatbots,” a term which is now associated with widget-y features used only in customer service.
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Chatbots as an Emotional Virtual Assistant
While chatbots are a thing of the past in the West, China has taken a different approach. ERNIE and other similar bots are really designed like an artificial friend or virtual assistant. Their app interface gives users prompt suggestions, like “Ask me how to cook XYZ.” It comes with a discovery page and is laced with gamification features. ERNIE also has presets for different characters, one of the most popular is the character of an elderly caring sister, who gives emotional responses and tries to bond with the user.
ERNIE clearly has a different use case — that of an emotional support agent — compared to our cut-and-dry LLMs here in the West which are mostly for productivity. Other Chinese startups have built AI-powered chatbots designed as artificial romantic partners. While I’m against any technology that minimizes real human-to-human relationships, I do see a positive use case for these support agents. It could be useful in areas like telehealth and online therapy, although there could be strange ethical implications that arise when you start replacing your real relationships with virtual ones à la Blade Runner.
ERNIE Bot vs. Western LLMs
There are some major differences between Western LLMs and ERNIE. ChatGPT and its look-alikes are, of course, fine-tuned to the English language, with moderate but imperfect results in other languages, especially Chinese. ChatGPT is known to make more punctuation and grammar errors and even spread more disinformation in responses written in Chinese because it was not designed primarily to be used by Chinese native speakers.
This is obviously not the case for ERNIE. The result? Just like most current internet services, you have two worlds: a Western internet and a Chinese one. And I can only guess at how the Chinese government plans to use ERNIE to influence its users or track its use — peering into the heart and soul of its citizens.
Baidu also has very different content enforcement methods for ERNIE than Western players. While Western chatbots are relatively easy to trick into saying what they shouldn’t, ERNIE is more adept at avoiding certain topics. ERNIE usually tries to change the subject and even stops or deletes responses mid-generation.
These content restrictions tell me three things:
- The Chinese chatbots aren’t as useful as their Western counterparts, which have “freedom of speech.” These strict guardrails limit the capacity of ERNIE to fulfill a large range of tasks that a user might have.
- ERNIE will be an excellent tool for the government to instill certain ways of thinking into its population.
- Many of the complaints we hear in the West about failing guardrails for ChatGPT are misguided. Clearly, it’s possible to restrict the content delivered by these models; it just takes old-fashioned hard work and a spot high on the feature priority list.
Another key difference between ChatGPT and ERNIE is that Baidu has built ERNIE’s entire tech stack. From the Kunlun AI chips and the PaddlePaddle deep learning platform to the ERNIE model itself, Baidu controls the entire hardware to software pipeline itself. Without a doubt, this was a heavy purchase. Still, it saves Baidu from relying on third-party infrastructure providers, which may present a data risk, and allows them to achieve end-to-end optimization and efficiencies.
I’m very curious to see how Chinese companies continue to build with generative AI. As the tech inevitably improves to the level of human intelligence or consciousness, it will become nearly impossible to contain them in the way ERNIE currently is. But by the time governments or companies realize the intelligence they’ve released, it may be too late.
Given the popularity of super-apps and chatbots in China, such a system will likely already be tapped into everything from your bank account, to your contact list, to your smart home, and beyond. In short, governments, both Western and Eastern, may be sowing the seeds of their own demise. Sounds like an excellent sci-fi plot!