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 on 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’s other products, like its search engine or self-driving cars, as the company promised.
Compared with the rollouts of ChatGPT and GPT-4, Ernie Bot’s release felt rushed. The presentation did not feature any live demo but instead used five pre-recorded sessions. Li also repeatedly said that Ernie is still imperfect and will improve once it reaches more users. Baidu’s stock price slipped by 6.4% on Thursdayand social media is full of disappointed reactions.
Li seemed prepared for such a response. “People have been asking me for a while: Why are you releasing [Ernie Bot] so soon? Are you ready for it?” he said during his presentation. “From what I personally saw when conducting internal tests on Ernie Bot, it’s not perfect. But why do we want to release it today? Because the market demands it.”
The race to be the first
While a few ChatGPT-style bots have already been released by Chinese companies or researchers, none of them has shown satisfying results. MOSS, an English-language chatbot developed by Fudan University researchers in Shanghai, was met with such high demand that its server broke down within a day of launch in late February. It has yet to return. MiniMax, a Chinese startup, released a chatbot called Inspo earlier this month, but it has been suspected of merely repackaging the GPT-3.5 model developed by OpenAI.
Many people expected that Baidu would be the first Chinese company to go head to head with ChatGPT. Back in 2019, Baidu released a GPT-3 equivalent—Ernie 3.0. It also released a decently powerful text-to-image model called Ernie-ViLG last year.