Chinese search engine giant Baidu (百度, Nasdaq: BIDU, HK: 9888) today cancelled a planned livestreamed launch of its ChatGPT-like Ernie Bot that it had advertised as being open to media and the public, Reuters reported today.
The launch, slated to begin at 2pm, was cancelled in the 11th hour and will be switched to a closed-door meeting with the first batch of companies applying to test the product, Baidu said in a statement in the morning.
Baidu attributed the change in format to “strong demand” from some 120,000 companies who applied to try the so-called Chinese answer to ChatGPT.
Baidu’s Hong Kong-listed shares fell as much as 4.5% in the morning trading session on reports of the cancellation.
The last-minute change left the market speculating whether Baidu’s much-touted Ernie Bot really can live up to the hype of Robin Li, founder and CEO of the search giant.
Li announced at a livestreamed event last week that Ernie Bot is only “one to two months” away from attaining the same level of technological sophistication as OpenAI’s ChatGPT.
He added Ernie Bot is currently comparable to ChatGPT from January this year.
Although Li admitted that Ernie Bot has “imperfections,” the gap between them isn’t “very big.”
“According to the team’s estimates, our capability is roughly on par with ChatGPT in January this year,” Li said.
However, since everyone is now so accustomed to ChatGPT in its present form — GPT-4 — that they tend to forget how ChatGPT underperformed then, he claimed.
Baidu debuted Ernie Bot on March 16, one day ahead of the arrival of GPT-4.
The appearance of a comparable homegrown chatbot initially had China’s tech community abuzz with curiosity and excitement.
But it soon gave way to dismay, as Ernie Bot proved inept at performing some seemingly mundane tasks.
It even invited ridicule for failing to generate pictures that match the user’s requirements.
Ernie Bot blundered particularly badly in recognizing and deciphering the names of Chinese dishes. For instance, it misinterpreted yuxiang rousi, or spicy fish-flavored pork slices, and painted a picture of a fish with sides resembling the texture of raw meat.
In another laughable example, Ernie Bot superimposed a tiger’s head on a chili pepper, in response to the user’s request for a picture of hupi jianjiao, or “tiger-skinned” sautéed green chili pepper.
However, all the criticisms are well “expected,” said Li, who said he warned at least three times that Ernie Bot was not perfect during the product launch.
Baidu felt “compelled” to debut it anyway due to the surging market demand.
At the aforementioned livestreamed event, more than 80,000 firms had applied to cooperate with Ernie Bot, according to Li.
Notably, during the Chinese Development Forum 2023 that opened yesterday in Beijing, Zhou Hongyi, founder of cybersecurity software giant 360, said that Chinese companies lag behind OpenAI by two to three years in terms of LLM (large language model).
But now that the way forward is clear, there exists no insurmountable technological barriers. “China should adopt long-termism and try to catch up,” said Zhou.