Baidu’s Ernie AI: A Rival to ChatGPT After Overcoming Initial Hurdles

Oct 18, 2023

Robin Li, the brain behind Baidu Inc., confidently announced that their language-model AI, Ernie 4.0, has successfully caught up with OpenAI’s cutting-edge GPT-4, marking a significant stride in China’s quest to develop AI technology that can compete with the US.

Li showcased Ernie 4.0’s capabilities during an event held at a repurposed steel mill in Beijing. The demonstration included a Q&A session where Ernie was tasked with providing responses and solving complex puzzles spontaneously. According to Li, Ernie now matches the level of sophistication and general capabilities of OpenAI’s groundbreaking product.

Despite having over 45 million users, Baidu’s flagship chatbot, Ernie, still trails behind ChatGPT, which boasts an estimated user base of 180 million. However, it’s worth noting that the US bot had a head start. As China’s leading search engine, often compared to Google, Baidu is banking on AI technology to outperform its competitors, including tech giants like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

After witnessing the transformative potential of generative AI through ChatGPT — capable of creating video and content from simple commands — Baidu spearheaded aggressive investments in the field across China. The company is considered a frontrunner in the race to develop a next-gen platform for the world’s largest internet market, competing against domestic tech firms and a slew of startups.

However, challenges loom ahead for Baidu and its cohorts. American companies like Microsoft Corp. and Google have set high standards with services like ChatGPT and Dall-E. Additionally, US sanctions limiting China’s access to advanced chips necessary for AI model training and operation, coupled with Beijing’s stringent censorship laws, could hinder their progress.

Despite these hurdles, Li remains optimistic, stating confidently that “Ernie is not inferior in any respect to GPT-4.”

Evaluating AI models poses its own set of challenges due to their inherent complexity. Yet, Li was eager to demonstrate Ernie Bot’s capabilities in real-time during the event, asking it to solve math problems, provide property buying advice, and even pen a novel set in an ancient martial arts world.

Baidu has integrated Ernie into several flagship products, including search, maps, file-sharing, work collaboration, and data analytics. The company hopes that Ernie Bot will become a core part of its business operations, helping it regain users lost to all-purpose apps run by TikTok-owner ByteDance Ltd. and Tencent.

With the Chinese government’s clear endorsement of generative AI technology — a potential game-changer for various industries and the economy at large — Baidu stands to gain significantly. In August, China greenlighted the first batch of generative AI services for domestic release, featuring products from both emerging players and major tech companies like Baidu and ByteDance. Despite being briefly eclipsed by mainstay services like Tencent’s WeChat, Ernie Bot quickly gained popularity, surpassing one million users on its launch day.