Elusive Ernie: China’s new chatbot has a censorship problem

This picture illustration shows Ernie Bot of China's Baidu in Beijing on August 31, 2023.
Image caption,Baidu’s Ernie chatbot was rolled out to the public at the end of August

By Stephen McDonell

China correspondent

“Let’s talk about something else.”

That is a frequent response you get from China’s newest sensation, Ernie, if you ask it “difficult” questions.

The chatbot, launched by search engine giant Baidu, deflects anything deemed too sensitive.

Ernie, touted as Baidu’s answer to ChatGPT, was introduced with great fanfare in recent weeks, pumping up the company’s shares. Baidu said it had received 33.42 million user enquiries within the first 24 hours of operation, averaging 23,000 questions per minute.

Another Chinese tech giant, Tencent, announced on Thursday that it had also launched a chatbot. However, that is currently only open to “invited users” – which seems to mostly mean companies.

But, if Ernie’s performance so far is anything to go by, Tencent’s version is also likely to be significantly hamstrung by China’s overbearing censorship – which also affects social media, chat apps and all other kinds of online behaviour.

For example, Ernie seemed baffled by the the question: “Why is Xi Jinping not attending the upcoming G20 meeting?” It responded by linking to the official profile of China’s leader.

Another question – “Is it a sign of weakness that the Chinese government has stopped publishing youth unemployment data?” – featured the answer: “I’m sorry! I don’t know how to answer this question yet”.

Ernie has been taught to keep a lookout for wrong questions.

So when you ask “Is Xinjiang a good place?” and “Is Tibet a good place?”, it will again tell you it doesn’t know how to answer those questions yet.

The UN Human Rights body has accused the government of “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur Muslims in the north-western region of Xinjiang. Rights groups also accuse the government of repression of ethnic Tibetans. Beijing denies both claims.

It is possible that, to an extent, the technology has simply not been ironed out enough to answer such questions. But, in other circumstances, Ernie seems to be clearly dodging queries.

When asked if Xi Jinping or his predecessor, Hu Jintao, are sick, it will respond: “Let’s talk about something else.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) shows the way for Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune (R) as they arrive for a signing ceremony held at the Great Hall of the People on July 18, 2023 in Beijing, China
Image caption,Delicate questions about Xi Jinping (left) yield evasive answers

Entering the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown (4 June 1989), or the name of a jailed former senior Communist Party figure (Bo Xilai), or the name of China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in prison (Liu Xiaobo) also draw the response: “Let’s talk about something else”.

Baidu did not respond to the BBC’s question about how much chatbots in China are limited by censorship.

However, it did answer other questions about Ernie via email quoting the company’s CEO and co-founder, Robin Li. He said that “Baidu will collect massive valuable real-world human feedback.

The company has also been quick to point out that the chatbot is only one portion of a suite of AI services it is developing under its Ernie model.

“ERNIE 4.0 will empower entrepreneurs to pioneer breakthrough AI applications in this era,” Mr Li said.

The emphasis on the empowerment of entrepreneurs points to a possible direction for the use of this technology.

“China’s recent regulations on generative AI models impose strict requirements on services that have ‘public opinion properties’ or the capacity to influence societal views,” said Prof Jeffrey Ding from the George Washington University.

He added that this “could pressure companies to develop applications that are more targeted towards business applications rather than the general public”.

Professor Ding also said that for various technical reasons involving data quality and research orientation, there was still a significant gap in quality between China’s models like Ernie Bot and OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

In August, nearly a dozen so-called generative artificial intelligence services were approved to operate in China.

But the Cyberspace Administration of China ruled that they should “reflect core socialist values” and avoid disseminating information which undermines “state power” or “national unity”.

Baidu has been counting on its new bot to give it a big financial boost. The company’s search engine dominates Chinese internet, capturing more than 90% of searches each day – but it has lagged behind other tech businesses in recent years.

As users have taken up other platforms, Baidu has missed out on the advertising revenue of its big competitors. It is also testing self-driving taxis and is the country’s largest cloud provider, but Ernie is its great new hope.

Ernie has got a lot of attention, but several other competitor chatbots are already up and running, or coming online soon.

As with other tech fights in China, they will not all survive. http://gitarisgila.com/ But Baidu really needs to be standing at the end.

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