Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled an advanced version of its search engine Bing, complete with ChatGPT-like technology that can answer complex questions and help users make decisions.

The push is part of Microsoft’s effort to transform an internet service that now trails far behind Google into a new way of communicating. Revamping Bing, the second-place search engine, could give the software giant a head start against other technology companies in capitalizing on the worldwide excitement surrounding ChatGPT, a tool that’s reached viral popularity in just two months of public release.

The “race starts today, and we’re going to move and move fast,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said on Tuesday during the unveiling at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters. Microsoft said it will gradually roll out the new Bing globally, but didn’t say when users would start to see it.

“We are basically taking the next generation of the model — that today powers ChatGPT — and building it in right into Bing,” Nadella told CBS Mornings host Tony Dokoupil before the announcement.

Asking questions

On stage, executives from Microsoft and OpenAI demonstrated ways that the enhanced search tool would create a faster, more seamless experience. For instance, a user could request a list of events happening in a specific city during the Super Bowl; ask for the best cordless vacuum models or whether an Ikea love seat will fit into a minivan. In response to the latter question, Bing can find the dimensions of the love seat and the car, and answer if it fits.

The “new Bing,” as Microsoft is calling the search function, can also offer more advanced help with travel plans, said Yusuf Mehdi, who leads Microsoft’s consumer business.

“With the new Bing, I don’t have to start with something that’s dumbed down, like ‘Mexico City Travel Tips,'” Mehdi said. Instead, he typed in, “create an itinerary for a five-day trip for me and my family.”

“Isn’t this just so much better as a starting point?” Mehdi said.

Chat boxes
A demonstration of the new Bing search engine and how it can help with travel planning.


Heavy investment

Microsoft’s partnership with OpenAI has been four years in development — starting with a $1 billion investment from Microsoft in 2019 that led to the creation of a powerful supercomputer built to OpenAI’s models.

While it’s not always factual or logical, ChatGPT’s mastery of language and grammar comes from having ingested a huge trove of digitized books, Wikipedia entries, instruction manuals, newspapers and other online writings.

The shift to making search engines more conversational — able to confidently answer questions rather than offering links to other websites — could change the advertising-fueled search business, but also poses risks if the AI systems don’t get their facts right. Their opaqueness also makes it hard to source back to the original human-made images and texts they’ve effectively memorized. 

ChatGPT can’t answer questions about current events, for instance, noting that the database on which it was trained ends in 2021.

Google playing catch-up

In response to pressure over ChatGPT’s popularity, Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Monday announced a new conversational service named Bard that will be available exclusively to a group of “trusted testers” before being widely released later this year.

Google’s chatbot is supposed to be able to explain complex subjects such as outer space discoveries in terms simple enough for a child to understand. It also claims the service will perform more mundane tasks — such as providing party-planning tips, or lunch ideas based on what food is left in a refrigerator. Other tech rivals such as Facebook parent Meta and Amazon also worked on similar technology, but Microsoft’s latest moves aim to position it at he center of the ChatGPT zeitgeist.

Microsoft disclosed in January that it was pouring billions more dollars into OpenAI as it looks to fuse the technology behind ChatGPT, the image-generator DALL-E and other OpenAI innovations into an array of Microsoft products tied to its cloud computing platform and its Office suite of workplace products.

The most surprising might be the integration with Bing, which is the second-place search engine in many markets but has never come close to challenging Google’s dominant position.

Bing launched in 2009 as a rebranding of Microsoft’s earlier search engines and was run for a time by Nadella, years before he took over as CEO. Its significance was boosted when Yahoo and Microsoft signed a deal for Bing to power Yahoo’s search engine, giving Microsoft access to Yahoo’s greater search share. Similar deals infused Bing into the search features for devices made by other companies, though users wouldn’t necessarily know that Microsoft was powering their searches.

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By making it a destination for ChatGPT-like conversations, Microsoft could invite more users to give Bing a try.

On the surface, at least, a Bing integration seems far different from what OpenAI has in mind for its technology.

OpenAI has long voiced an ambitious vision for safely guiding what’s known as AGI, or artificial general intelligence, a not-yet-realized concept that harkens back to ideas from science fiction about human-like machines. OpenAI’s website describes AGI as “highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work.”

OpenAI started out as a nonprofit research laboratory when it launched in December 2015 with backing from Tesla CEO Elon Musk and others. Its stated aims were to “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.”

That changed in 2018 when it incorporated a for-profit business Open AI LP, and shifted nearly all its staff into the business, not long after releasing its first generation of the GPT model for generating human-like paragraphs of readable text.

OpenAI’s other products include the image-generator DALL-E, first released in 2021, the computer programming assistant Codex and the speech recognition tool Whisper.


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