- Chinese tech giant Baidu announced Thursday that its ChatGPT-like bot Ernie is now open to the public at large.
- That points to a green light from Beijing, and another indication of a more relaxed political stance on AI.
- During a phone call last week, Baidu CEO Robin Li called the new AI rules “more pro-innovation than regulation,” and said the company was “very optimistic about the future for a better regulatory environment.”
Pictured is the Ernie bot mobile interface, with the Baidu search engine homepage in the background.
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BEIJING — Chinese tech giant Baidu announced Thursday that its ChatGPT-like Ernie Bot is now open to the general public.
That points to a green light from Beijing, and another indication of a more relaxed political stance on AI.
Baidu launched the Ernie bot on March 16th. Initial access was limited to the company’s business partners and people who first joined the waiting list – whose numbers swelled to more than 1.2 million before Baidu stopped disclosing them.
As of Wednesday, CNBC has access to the Ernie bot without the prior restrictions of having to enter a Chinese ID number.
Chinese companies have been quick to announce generative AI projects since OpenAI’s ChatGPT skyrocketed in popularity around the world earlier this year. ChatGPT is not officially allowed in China, where access to Google and Facebook is blocked.
Despite this level of control, senior Chinese leaders have made high-profile comments about the need to develop indigenous technology, with particular reference to artificial intelligence.
On August 15, China’s “Provisional Regulations” for managing generative AI services came into force.
The rules said they would not apply to companies developing AI technology as long as the product is not available to the general public. This is more relaxed than the draft in April which said the upcoming rules would apply even in the research phase.
The latest version of the rules also did not include comprehensive licensing requirements, merely stating that a license is needed if required by law and regulations. It did not specify which ones.
China has generally increased regulations regarding personal data protection and network security.
During a phone call last week, Baidu CEO Robin Li called the new rules “more pro-innovation than regulation” and said the company was “very optimistic about the future for a better regulatory environment”.
At the time, Lee said the company was “still waiting for the go-ahead to widely deploy the Ernie bot for use in consumer-facing applications.”
Other Chinese companies, including Alibaba, have launched a large number of generative AI products.
Last week, Kunlun Tech, the parent company of the Opera web browser, released to the public an AI-powered chatbot and search engine called Tiangong AI search. The company compared it to Microsoft Bing’s integration with OpenAI, where Tiangong also provides internet links with its results.
Previously, the majority of AI products in China were only available for internal use by corporate partners.
It is not clear how the underlying technology of chatbots compares to ChatGPT technology. The basic functions are generally the same, although Ernie bot and Tiangong operate mainly in Chinese. Both have standalone iPhone apps.
ChatGPT’s popularity began to wane in June, despite an iPhone app launching in May, according to a report by Bank of America.
— CNBC’s Kev Leswing contributed to this report.