China’s tech giants have scrambled to catch up with OpenAI and get their own products to market—although several of them had been working on large language models for years.
On February 7, Baidu announced it would launch Ernie bot (“Wen Xin Yi Yan” in Chinese) for internal testing in March. The bot will be based on Ernie 3.0-Titan, a large language model that Baidu has been developing since 2019.
Baidu says the chatbot will be able to give conversational responses to prompts in English and will primarily focus on trying to understand the nuances of Chinese. Ultimately, it will be integrated into the company’s search engine and Xiaodu voice assistant and used in its AI Cloud and Apollo autonomous driving businesses, Baidu CEO Robin Li said on the company’s 2022 Q4 earning call.
The day Baidu made its announcement, its shares surged 15 percent on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
A week after Baidu’s news, iFlyTech, an AI company known for voice recognition systems, announced its own AI bot. iFlyTech said it will launch the bot in May and is “very confident of achieving a similar technological leap forward as ChatGPT.” On February 27, Tencent announced that it has formed a new team internally to develop its ChatGPT alternative, HunyuanAide. Meanwhile, ecommerce companies Alibaba and JD.com and gaming giant NetEase have all said they’re working on AI chatbots.
Wang Huiwen, cofounder of the food delivery giant Meituan, came out of retirement in February, posting on the social media platform Jike that he was recruiting staff to build an OpenAI competitor. He said he had secured $230 million in venture capital funding, on top of $50 million of his own money, to fund the project.
The Chinese government has also recognized the importance of development in generative AI. A white paper released on February 13 by Beijing’s Municipal Bureau of Economy and Information, which hosts and regulates a large number of Chinese AI startups, promised to assist “top domestic firms in creating competing models to ChatGPT.”
“The frontrunner of the race to build a homegrown ChatGPT in China will be companies that already laid the foundation of building GPT-3-like large models,” says Jeffery Ding, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, referring to the GPT-3 family of large language models underlying ChatGPT. Baidu, Huawei, Inspur, and Tencent have all been building these models, Ding says, and may not be far behind US companies.
Liu Jun, senior vice president of Inspur Information and general manager of AI, told WIRED that Inspur’s Yuan 1.0 model has 245.7 billion parameters and a 5 TB data set, and now boasts an open source developer community with more than 3,000 members. According to a paper published in 2021 by Baidu, Ernie 3.0 Titan has 260 billion parameters and a 4 TB data set. By comparison, OpenAI’s GPT-3 has around 175 billion parameters.
Huawei, Baidu, and Tencent did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
Despite being almost entirely trained in English, ChatGPT has demonstrated the ability to produce reasonably fluent Chinese text, but it does so slowly, with a five-second lag compared to English, according to WIRED’s testing on the free version. Users have pointed out on social media that the text still occasionally sounds like it’s been translated.
By Wired, March 25, 2023