Baidu Chief Technology Officer Wang Haifeng speaks at the unveiling ceremony of Baidu’s artificial intelligence chatbot Ernie Bot during an event in Beijing, March 16, 2023.
Michael Zhang | AFP | Getty Images
BEIJING — In the more than two months since the ChatGPT craze swept China, a similar artificial intelligence-based product has yet to reach the country’s vast population.
Instead, by baidu, alibaba and others only get limited access through a waitlist — or only on trial with business partners.
On par with the “iPhone moment,” ChatGPT hit an estimated 100 million monthly active users two months after its launch in November. AI chatbots use big data to learn and can generate everything from poetry to business strategies in human-like conversations.
But ChatGPT, created by US-based OpenAI, is not available in China, which also blocks access to Twitter, Facebook and Google through the government’s internet firewall. Beijing also released draft rules regulating AI-generated content this month for public comments until May 10.
These restrictions have not stopped Chinese media and social media from talking about ChatGPT and AI technology in general. Someone tried to buy an overseas ChatGPT account on a Chinese e-commerce website.
Domestic companies are scrambling to release and test alternatives. Accumulating big data and machine learning experience is an integral part of the technology behind ChatGPT.
So far, public data show that similar AI products are not widely available in China.
Alibaba Cloud said on Wednesday that it had received more than 200,000 requests from businesses to test a version of the company’s ChatGPT-style technology, called Unified Qianwen. The product was released on April 11.
One of the business partners, Kunlun Tech, launched “Tiangong” on April 17, which can interact with users in the form of questions and answers. This product is currently invite-only. Kunlun claims Tiangong is the only chatbot in China with training metrics At ChatGPT level.
Likewise, it’s not clear how many people have access to Baidu’s Ernie bot.
Less than a week after its launch on March 16, the chatbot had more than 1.2 million people on a waiting list. The company stopped disclosing numbers for a few days. No update on Friday.
When CNBC tried to register the Ernie bot in March, Baidu’s system required a mainland Chinese phone number and a local ID to use the chatbot. Now more and more domestic applications require real-name authentication, or strongly encourage real-name authentication.
Baidu said this week that since Ernie bot launched, it has updated the product four times and reduced the running cost of the AI model to one-tenth of its previous level.
The public version of Ernie bot allows users to generate English and Chinese text, images and audio.
In the US, there are also waiting lists for new AI-based products from Google and Microsoft. Due to server capacity, ChatGPT cannot be continuously used. Some in the industry also expect such AI tools to be easier to commercialize for commercial products than public tools such as search.
Regulatory uncertainty remains, while Beijing is still in the comment period for its draft AI rules. Authorities have not yet announced when the final version of the rules will take effect.
Outside of China, the US and Europe are generally lax on ChatGPT, with the exception of Italy, which this month banned the chatbot until OpenAI addresses privacy concerns.
A bug gave ChatGPT users temporary access to other people’s conversations. OpenAI said this week that it released an incognito-like feature that allows users to turn off chat history and Choose not to use their data to train their models.
Another challenge facing Chinese companies is obtaining state-of-the-art artificial intelligence model training chips. The United States announced a strict export ban in October aimed at limiting China’s access to high-end semiconductors.
OpenAI’s GPT-3 level model requires at least 1,000 Nvidia The A100 graphics processing unit, a chip known as a GPU, will complete a 23-day training round, HSBC analysts said in an April 20 note.
More than 30 companies and institutions in China are training such AI models, indicating “strong demand for AI servers and increased spending on network infrastructure,” the report said.
Analysts said they expect Chinese AI GPU demand to grow by more than 40% this year.
Another estimate based on checks with cloud providers predicts demand will at least double — leading to a “severe shortage” of chips, according to a representative of a company investing in AI models, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
On the regulatory front, sources say authorities support ChatGPT-style technology while planning to regulate it — companies expect they will need a license to operate ChatGPT-like technology and are preparing applications.
— CNBC’s Michael Bloom and Ashley Capoot contributed to this report.