On Thursday, Robin Li, Baidu’s cofounder and CEO, took the stage in Beijing to showcase the company’s new large language model, Ernie Bot. Accompanied by art created by Baidu’s image-making AI, he showed examples of what the chatbot can do, including solve math questions, write marketing copy, answer questions about Chinese literature, and generate multimedia responses.
Baidu had planned for this mid-March product release for months. But it was intercepted by the unexpected release on Tuesday of OpenAI’s GPT-4, which clearly became a reference point for everyone watching Baidu’s activities, including the CEO himself. “People are expecting to benchmark Ernie Bot against ChatGPT, or even GPT-4. That’s a very high bar,” Li said at the beginning of his presentation.
As expected, Ernie Bot (the name stands for “Enhanced Representation from kNowledge IntEgration;” its Chinese name is 文心一言, or Wenxin Yiyan) performs particularly well when it comes to tasks specific to Chinese culture, like explaining a historical fact or writing a traditional poem. (Li says as a Chinese company, Baidu “has to perform better than any pre-trained LLMs” in terms of understanding Chinese.)
But the highlight of the product release was Ernie Bot’s multimodal output feature, which ChatGPT and GPT-4 do not offer (OpenAI has bragged about GPT-4’s ability to analyze a photo of the contents of a refrigerator and come up with recipe suggestions, but the model generates only text). Li showed a recorded interaction with the bot where it generated an illustration of a futuristic city transportation system, used Chinese dialect to read out a text answer, and edited and subtitled a video based on the same text. However, in later testing after the launch, a Chinese publication failed to reproduce the video generation.
The Chinese public has been hungry for a ChatGPT alternative; both OpenAI and the Chinese government have barred individuals in China from using the American chatbot.
But so far, Ernie Bot has been made available only to an extremely select pool of Chinese creators. Companies can apply for API access. But Baidu has not said whether the technology will be available for consumers. It’s also unclear when the bot will be integrated into Baidu&rsqu...