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Will Chatbots Kill Search Engines?


In 2016, Google’s Chief Executive Officer, Sundar Pichai proudly declared that the future of Google would be “AI first.” At the time, it was difficult to conceptualize real-world artificial intelligence. Today, tune into the news or peruse social media for more than 5 minutes and you’ll find evidence of the AI chatbot’s encroaching presence. Many assumed that Google or one of the other major players would be the first to deliver an AI solution viable for public use. But an unlikely player in OpenAI has sent shockwaves through Big Tech. Their language learning model ChatGPT has set a new standard for generative AI and online search.

This previously obscure company has risen seemingly overnight to spur an artificial intelligence race that has even Google in a panic. Will chatbots change the way we find our information on the web? How might this affect the major players in the tech industry? In the following blog, we explore how AI chatbots are reshaping the web and the tech industry at large.  

The A Brief History of OpenAI’s ChatGPT

In 2015, OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit artificial intelligence research lab. The founders were men of note in the tech industry—among them, Sam Altman, PayPal’s Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk. The vested parties each put $1 billion dollars into the new company. Their aims were idealistic. Their mission statement read, “OpenAI is a non-profit artificial intelligence research company…OpenAI’s mission is to ensure artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity….” 

In 2018, OpenAI published a report entitled “Improving Language Understanding by Generative Pre-Training,” which formally articulated what would become their Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) model. The GPT model was a program that learned to distinguish patterns in large data sets. It is then able to generate written responses to the input. ChatGPT-1 was delivered soon after, having as its backing the information culled from 7000 unpublished books. Not long after, Elon Musk left the company over creative differences but that didn’t stop their momentum. 

 In 2019, OpenAI not only delivered ChatGPT-2 but secured tech giant Microsoft as an investor. The small company has, since then, grown to incorporate 400 employees. With major financial backing, developers have vastly improved the capabilities of ChatGPT, as well as implemented greater public safety measures. ChatGPT-3 followed to great success with users and critics. And as of this article, ChatGPT-4 is setting the internet ablaze.

The Rising Popularity of ChatGPT

 Bill Gates has called recent advancements in AI, particularly the release of ChatGPT, “revolutionary.” Many in the tech sphere liken these technologies to the advent of the microprocessor or the iPhone. With rising anticipation for the future of AI models, venture capitalists have been chomping at the bit to get a piece of the action. Billions have already been allocated to artificial intelligence research broadly. Microsoft, for their part, recently vowed to invest a whopping $10 billion into OpenAI. 

 As of yet, the financial returns to investors have been negligible at best. But the amount of cultural cache OpenAI’s technologies have been able to drum up has many excited. Within the first two months of its launch, ChatGPT amassed 100 million users. For perspective, consider that it took Tiktok nine months to do the same, and Instagram nearly two and a half years. 

News of ChatGPT’s surging popularity has Big Tech’s significant players alarmed. In response to the uproar, Google issued a code-red indicating a company-wide emergency. 

ChatGPT, Google, and the Future of Search Engines 

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have spent most of the last three years away from the company. Occasionally, they’d stop by to stay abreast of developments or sign things. It wasn’t until CEO Sundar Pichai raised the alarm that they were rushed back into the fold. Practically overnight, the entire company reoriented, allocating more significant resources to AI research and development. A fast-track approval lane was created to expedite the production of AI technologies. Dozens of AI projects have since been approved, including an initiative to combine chatbot features with the Google search engine

Still, Google is trying to figure out how to deploy its chatbot technology. A few obstacles stand in the tech giant’s way. For starters, chatbots are far from infallible. Past experiments have produced chatbots that espoused the bigoted rhetoric they indiscriminately culled from the internet. And recently, another chatbot designed for scientific research was criticized for repeatedly offering false information. A brand like Google must be wary of how such incidents can affect its public image. On the other hand, a smaller tech firm like OpenAI can better circumvent negative backlash thanks to its upstart appearance. The other problem is that chatbots eat away at Google’s bread and butter—search engine links. 

Instead of page after page of search engine links, a program like ChatGPT could answer a query in a succinct paragraph. Language learning models can put an end to search engines.

Amr Awadallah, head of AI start-up Vectara and former employee of both Yahoo and Google, relayed the problem cogently when he said, “Google has a business model issue. You won’t click on ads if [it] gives you the perfect answer to each query.”

The funny thing is that Google has been working on AI chatbot technology for many years now. Google’s former engineers developed the transformer that powers ChatGPT’s language learning model. Why, then, didn’t they beat OpenAI to the punch? 

Researchers at Google were initially hesitant to deploy their chatbot because they hadn’t figured out to capitalize off of digital ads—which make up 80% of the company’s revenue. Compounding the issue were bugs—predilections toward toxicity and bias—that ruined the commercial viability and safety of the products. The launch of ChatGPT, however, has morphed Google’s cautious reticence into full-on panic. 

“This is a moment of significant vulnerability for Google,” said D. Sivakumar, former research director at Google. He believes OpenAI may have opened new doors for e-commerce and search engine start-ups. “ChatGPT has put a stake in the ground, saying, ‘Here’s what a compelling new search experience could look like.’” 

Insiders at Google, including one undisclosed executive, have characterized this time as make or break for the company. But are the rumblings correct? Is it time for Google to relinquish its iron hold of the tech industry? Rivals are eagerly throwing their hats into the ring. 

Will Chatbots Replace Search Engines? 

Will chatbots forever change the way information is sourced from the internet? Tech companies are likely vying to be the next to do it, and ChatGPT has only fueled their competition. 

“Everybody who develops software is either alerted, or shocked into alert, or actively working on something like ChatGPT to be integrated into their application or service,” said NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang. 

Things have changed so quickly since ChatGPT’s November release. Meta, the company responsible for Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, is currently at work on a chatbot called Llama. This development comes on the heels of their previous deployment, a chatbot named BlenderBot3, which highlighted some of the significant issues with chatbots. The AI often relayed incorrect information and repeated bigoted talking points when prompted. Chinese tech giant Baidu released their chatbot, Ernie, to lukewarm reviews and watched its share price fall 10 percent. Antrophic, a company created by former OpenAI employees, secured a $300 million investment from Google—their chatbot, Claude, is already in the beta-testing stages. And Microsoft’s Bing, which has traditionally played second-fiddle to Google, has begun incorporating chatbots into its search engine.

OpenAI has lit a fire under many of the major players in Big Tech. As companies scramble to outdo one another, the future of the web, research methods, and silicon valley itself becomes increasingly uncertain. Will rambunctious upstarts like OpenAI supersede the major tech empires? Will companies like Google learn to adapt and reassert their market dominance claim? 

Margaret O’ Mara, a Silicon Valley historian and professor at the University of Washington, had this to say: “no company is invincible; all are vulnerable…For companies that have become extraordinarily successful doing one market-defining thing to have a second act with something entirely different.”