Chinese tech giants forge a different path in AI chatbot frenzy
Updated 18:55, 17-Feb-2023
He Jingyi
The chatbot ChatGPT has sparked widespread interest in artificial intelligence. /CFP
The chatbot ChatGPT has sparked widespread interest in artificial intelligence. /CFP

The chatbot ChatGPT has sparked widespread interest in artificial intelligence. /CFP

Chinese tech companies are racing to develop their own versions of ChatGPT amid the global frenzy around OpenAI's chatbot, but with a more circumspect approach.

Chinese tech giants, ranging from e-commerce platforms and Alibaba to search engine behemoth Baidu, have announced their intentions to launch ChatGPT-style products over the past week. Baidu even specified the timeline of its ChatGPT alternative "ERNIE Bot," which will be launched in March, becoming one of China’s most prominent entries in the AI race.

However, "there are differences in how China and the U.S. implement AI applications," said Liu Qingfeng, founder and CEO of iFlytek, an AI speech interaction platform.

Unlike the "all-encompassing" platform of ChatGPT, Chinese tech companies are focusing on specific enterprise applications. said its product ChatJD will focus on the retail and finance industry, while Alibaba's AI technology will be integrated into its cloud computing products. NetEase's online learning unit, Youdao, plans to launch a similar AI service targeting the education industry.

Liu clarified that general AI applications, such as ChatGPT, typically require an "astonishing" amount of funding to sustain. Instead, Chinese companies are diving into specific sectors so they can benefit from their industry-specific expertise and resources.

By applying ChatGPT-like technology to targeted sectors, companies can gain a competitive edge in commercialization and project implementation, potentially surpassing their American counterparts.

"In terms of the underlying techniques, ChatGPT is not particularly revolutionary. It is less a scientific breakthrough and more a triumph in engineering," said Wang Jinqiao, professor at the Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS). "Many companies and research labs have built data-driven language processing technology in the past."

Wang noted five Chinese versions of GPT-3 (the third iteration of a language model trained on a large amount of data), including Baidu's ERNIE, Huawei's PanGu-Alpha, and CAS's Zidong-Taichu.

Zidong-Taichu is the first AI application to combine graphics, text and audio, already overcoming the text-only limitations of ChatGPT.

"From the perspective of technology and talent reserves, there is no shortage of ChatGPT-related technology in China," said Wang.

He noted that China owns the largest number of internet users in the world, has rich application scenarios, and obviously possesses the advantage of data accumulation.

Moreover, Chinese companies also have access to better Chinese-language AI training materials, giving them a unique edge in developing localized AI technologies, according to Lu Xueyu, vice president of Lukung Technology.

Nevertheless, Wang admitted a time lag between Chinese and U.S. companies in large language models. On the algorithmic side, industry experts believe no global model can currently match ChatGPT's impressive performance, and the gap between China and the U.S. is around two years.

An industry insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there is no rush for the market, as the application scenarios and related laws and regulations are far from mature. He said there is still a long way to go before the large-scale commercialization of AI-generated content is possible.

China's capital Beijing has already announced an interest in entering the burgeoning field of generative AI. The city's economy and information technology bureau said on Monday that it will support leading enterprises in building large AI models that can challenge ChatGPT.

With ample government support for industrial development and heavy investment in capital and technology by Chinese tech giants, as well as a vast user base, Yi Weidong, professor at CAS, believes that Chinese companies have the potential to win the race if they can capitalize on this opportunity.

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