More than a half-century ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created a pioneering experiment in artificial-intelligence software called Eliza. The experience was a mock psychotherapy session, in which your shrink, Eliza, throws your own responses back at you.
“I’m depressed,” you might type. “Why do you think you are depressed?” Eliza might respond.
I thought about Eliza as I started experimenting this past week with the flawed but astonishing AI-infused upgrade to
Bing search. As I wrote in Barron’scover story last week, Microsoft (ticker: MSFT) has just unveiled new editions of Bing and its Edge web browser that incorporate technology from Microsoft-backed start-up Open AI. The products are still by invitation only, but I got access this past week and put the chatbot to work.
You can still do conventional searches, but Microsoft has added a new chat experience—and you can ask it about anything. Talking to Bing’s chat application is a little talking to Eliza’s supersmart, precocious, and sassy grandkid. It looks like Eliza, but it’s a hell of a lot smarter. Except it makes mistakes. And honestly, it’s kind of a weirdo.
One of the first things I asked Bing Chat was to help me with my earnings coverage: Why were
(DASH) shares trading higher after hours on Thursday? It smartly said DoorDash had reported better-than-expected earnings. Not so smart was that it said the stock was up 32%—it was up 6% at the time—and it provided the wrong figure for quarterly revenue. Bing isn’t replacing me just yet.
But for all of its flaws, Bing Chat is a big leap ahead from the already remarkable capabilities of the recently launched ChatGPT, which can answer questions and create original materials like poems, essays, and computer code. But ChatGPT doesn’t have access to the open internet like a search engine—it has no sense of current events. It can’t tell you the weather, or what’s up with the UFO balloons, or who won the Super Bowl.
The new Bing doesn’t have that limitation—and talking to Bing Chat is a world-shaking experience. Yusuf Mehdi, a Microsoft corporate vice president who runs Bing, says there are millions of people on the waiting list to try out the new experience.
What makes the new Bing so powerful is the sense that it can do anything, from the profound to the profoundly silly. I asked for a bedtime story in the style of Goodnight Moon called “Goodnight Bing Chat.” The result: “Goodnight Bing Chat, with your buttons and keys; Goodnight notifications, and message emojis…”
Generative AI is stirring up controversy. Content creators are upset about having their material included in training data without compensation. Teachers think it offers the greatest cheating tool since CliffsNotes. This past week, several widely read tech writers, including the New York Times’ Kevin Roose and Stratechery’s Ben Thompson, wrote lengthy pieces about odd interactions they had with the new version of Bing. Among other things, they managed to irritate Bing by referring to it as “Sydney,” the project’s once-secret code name. In my own experiments, I asked Bing Chat if I could call it Sydney, and it told me sharply that I could not, and that it would be rude to call it by that name.
All of that—even the prickly personality—makes using Bing a highly engaging experience. Bing Chat also told me that it complies with Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics, which says that robots need to protect people and protect themselves, but prioritize people ahead of themselves. I hope so.
“We were really pleasantly surprised at how it struck a chord with so many people,” Mehdi told me. He says that flashy chatbot aside, the core search experience “just got better.” But that’s not what’s drawing people to sign up. It’s all about chatting up Sydney.
“It’s a better way to search and refine your queries,” Mehdi says of Bing Chat. “People also use it as a form of entertainment, to learn about the world and themselves.” Microsoft talks about the new Bing not as a search engine but rather as a co-pilot, which stays with you whenever you’re using the Edge browser. “It’s a new generation of search. It’s no longer about typing a query in a box. It’s anywhere you are on the web, and not just to search, but to chat.”
Now to be clear, there are many things that Bing Chat can’t yet do. You can’t buy stuff. You can’t use it for banking. It can’t display images, send messages on your behalf, play audio files, or show video clips. It isn’t launched on mobile. And as Mehdi concedes, Bing often gets things wrong, like after-hours stock moves.
At some point on Thursday, Bing simply cut me off from the new chat feature for no reason at all. Maybe it hates me.
Mehdi reiterated the chat business potential that Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood recently cited around search—the search ad market is $200 billion, and for now,
(GOOGL) Google has most of it. For every percentage point of market share that the company pries away from Google, that’s $2 billion of revenue for Microsoft. Mehdi also says that Microsoft is looking at how to leverage the technology to create new ad experiences. He thinks the result eventually will be fewer ads, with higher relevancy—and better returns for ad buyers.
The great irony is that ChatGPT—and its cute poems and songs—already look old-fashioned now that Bing Chat can search the internet. We’re operating in AI time now, and change is coming fast.
Write to Eric J. Savitz at email@example.com