Chinese tech giant Baidu has publicly launched its AI chatbot Ernie Bot, making it one of the first conversational AI models approved for public use in China under the country’s new regulations on generative AI.
Ernie Bot Quickly Gains Popularity
Within just 24 hours of its release on Thursday, Baidu’s Ernie Bot crossed 1 million users, demonstrating strong demand in China for a homegrown alternative to ChatGPT. By Thursday afternoon, the Ernie Bot app had become the most downloaded free app on Apple’s iOS store in China.
The chatbot is now available through Baidu’s website and mobile apps, allowing users to have natural conversations with the AI and get it to generate text, images and videos.
Baidu plans to launch more AI products in the future that leverage different capabilities like reasoning and memory, beyond just conversational chatbots.
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China Implements Strict Rules for Public AI Models
The launch of Ernie Bot comes after China implemented comprehensive regulations on generative AI models in January, which require companies to get approval before releasing AI chatbots publicly.
The rules mandate that public AI systems follow “core socialist values,” avoid generating harmful content, respect intellectual property and more. Companies must also implement safeguards against addiction and unlawful use of their AI services.
Regulators require firms submit security assessments and show compliance with the principles before greenlighting the public use of generative AI models.
This approval process has prevented the entry of systems like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, which remain inaccessible in China. Other foreign models also continue to be blocked.
Baidu First to Get Regulatory Nod; Others in Pipeline
Baidu secured the necessary permits to launch Ernie Bot publicly, making it one of the first conversational AI models to be approved under the new framework.
According to reports, around a dozen companies including ByteDance, Tencent and Huawei have either obtained or are seeking clearance to release their AI systems.
For instance, ByteDance has been testing a ChatGPT-style chatbot called Hanyu, but it hasn’t launched widely yet. Tencent also revealed its AI assistant called Haina, but public access remains limited.
Alibaba has an AI chatbot called Tongyi Qianwen that it has likely submitted for regulatory approval. But so far, Baidu’s Ernie Bot remains the only approved and launched chatbot in China.
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Navigating Nationalist Tech Policies
The Chinese regulations around content moderation and aligning AI values with government principles adds complexity for local tech firms.
However, Baidu is betting that its familiarity with Chinese policies and integration with local users through its search engine will give it an edge.
While restricting harmful content, China has generally encouraged developing AI to drive economic growth. Baidu aims to balance both while leveraging its strengths in natural language AI.
Race to Keep Up with Microsoft, Google
The launch of Ernie Bot places Baidu at the forefront of Chinese tech giants responding competitively to systems like ChatGPT. However, keeping pace with rapid improvements from Microsoft, Google and others will require massive investment.
Baidu can collect user feedback on Ernie Bot to rapidly improve its foundational Ernie 3.5 AI model. But local rivals like Alibaba and Huawei won’t be far behind once they get regulatory approvals.
The public launch is a starting point for Baidu. Maintaining leadership in conversational AI will depend on continued model iteration and staying aligned with Chinese values.
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Showcasing Baidu’s AI Capabilities
For Baidu, Ernie Bot represents both a strategic product and a showcase of its prowess in natural language processing. It aims to highlight its technical abilities, much like ChatGPT did for OpenAI.
“Making Ernie Bot available to hundreds of millions of Internet users, Baidu will collect massive valuable real-world human feedback,” said Baidu CEO Robin Li. “This will not only help improve Baidu’s foundation model but also iterate Ernie Bot on a much faster pace, ultimately leading to a superior user experience.”
With Ernie Bot now launched, Baidu has staked an early claim in China’s emerging generative AI space. But sustaining that lead will require balancing rapid innovation with government oversight in an increasingly competitive market.