Search wars: Google’s new challenge from AI

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Google showed off its “homegrown rival” to the AI chatbot ChatGPT last week, said Sam Schechner and Miles Kruppa in The Wall Street Journal, and Bard, as it’s been named, may have given the most expensive wrong answer ever on a science quiz. In response to a question about the James Webb Space Telescope, Bard said that the telescope had taken “‘the very first pictures’ of an exoplanet outside the solar system” — which was simply untrue. (The first pictures of an exoplanet were taken by another telescope in 2004.) Shares in Google’s parent company, Alphabet, promptly fell 7.7 percent, erasing about $100 billion in value. It was an inauspicious start for Google in the high-stakes “war over the commercial potential of generative AI.”

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AI-powered search poses existential questions for Google, said Richard Waters and Madhumita Murgia in the Financial Times. By creating real competition, it threatens “to demolish the high profit margins that have underpinned Google’s core business.” Microsoft, a cornerstone investor in ChatGPT creator OpenAI, has already integrated the AI technology into its Bing search engine. “Microsoft poured billions of dollars into challenging Google in the early days of search but could not make a dent in its dominant position.” Now, though, AI threatens to turn the tables, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says that the Seattle giant is willing to do whatever it takes to even the playing field — even if AI-powered search means less advertising, less time searching, and less money across the board. In my early testing, the OpenAI-assisted Bing is “smart — really smart,” said Joanna Stern in The Wall Street Journal. The searches gave me clear answers and saved me time on questions like “Do you know if Beyoncé is touring?” That said, Microsoft has ground to make up. To make sure Bing’s answers were accurate, I resorted to an old habit: I checked Google.

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“The search wars haven’t been this hot since 2009,” said Davey Alba in Bloomberg. Google sees that its near-monopoly is finally “under threat.” Google executives have described perfecting search “as the ‘biggest moon shot’ for the company despite being nearly 25 years into the business.” But it’s not clear whether any of the new products really transform search or just show off a “cheerful, seemingly fluent” AI interface whose novelty will wear off. “The accelerated rollouts of these products appear to be motivated less by their readiness than by FOMO — fear of missing out.”

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“No one truly knows what AI firepower Google may or may not be sitting on,” but it looks like it’s falling behind, said Richard Nieva, Alex Konrad, and Kenrick Cai in Forbes. Now it’s forced into making trade-offs to catch up. Google has even said that it’s willing to increase the risk it takes in bringing the technology to market — “a stunning admission for a big tech company so closely scrutinized for toxic content.” Google’s awkward launch is a “prescient example of the danger of relying on AI models,” said Matthew Sparkes in New Scientist. Whether Microsoft or Google wins the race, poorly controlled AI search can open up new possibilities for “creating misinformation on a mass scale.”

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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