Answers from the AI-powered chatbot are often more useful than those from the world’s biggest search engine. Alphabet should be worried.
A new chatbot from OpenAI took the internet by storm this week, dashing off poems, screenplays and essay answers that were plastered as screenshots all over Twitter by the breathless technoratti. Though the underlying technology has been around for a few years, this was the first time OpenAI has brought its powerful language-generating system known as GPT3 to the masses, prompting a race by humans to give it the most inventive commands. (My favorite is, “Write a Biblical verse explaining how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR.”)
Beyond the gimmicky demos, some people are already finding practical uses for ChatGPT, including programmers who are using it to draft code or spot errors. But the system’s biggest utility could be a financial disaster for Google by supplying superior answers to the queries we currently put to the world’s most powerful search engine.
Google works by crawling billions of web pages, indexing that content and then ranking it in order of the most relevant answers. It then spits out a list of links to click through. ChatGPT offers something more tantalizing for harried internet users: a single answer based on its own search and synthesis of that information. ChatGPT has been trained on millions of websites to glean not only the skill of holding a humanlike conversation, but information itself, so long as it was published on the internet before late 2021.(1)
I went through my own Google search history over the past month and put 18 of my Google queries into ChatGPT, cataloguing the answers. I then went back and ran the queries through Google once more, to refresh my memory. The end result was, in my judgment, that ChapGPT’s answer was more useful than Google’s in 13 out of the 18 examples.
“Useful” is of course subjective. What do I mean by the term? In this case, answers that were clear and comprehensive. A query about whether condensed milk or evaporated milk was better for pumpkin pie during Thanksgiving sparked a detailed (if slightly verbose) answer from ChatGPT that explained how condensed milk would lead to a sweeter pie. (Naturally, that was superior.) Google mainly provided a list of links to recipes I’d have to click around, with no clear answer.
That underscores ChatGPT’s prime threat to Google down the line. It gives a single, immediate response that requires no further scanning of other websites. In Silicon Valley speak, that is a “frictionless” experience, something of a holy grail when online consumers overwhelmingly favor services that are quick and easy to use.
Google does have its own version of summarized answers to some queries, but they are compilations of the highest ranked web page and typically brief. It also has its own proprietary language model, called LaMDA, which is so good that one of the company’s engineers thought the system was sentient.
So why doesn’t Google generate its own singular answers to queries, like ChatGPT? Because anything that prevents people from scanning search results is going to hurt Google’s transactional business model of getting people to click on ads. Some 81% of Alphabet Inc.’s $257.6 billion revenue in 2021 came from advertising, much of that being Google’s pay-per-click ads, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“It’s all designed with the purpose of ‘Let’s get you to click on a link,’” says Sridhar Ramaswamy, who oversaw Google’s ads and commerce business between 2013 and 2018, and who says that generative search from systems like ChatGPT will disrupt Google’s traditional search business “in a massive way.”
“It’s just a better experience,” he added. “The goal of Google search is to get you to click on links, ideally ads, and all other text on the page is just filler.” Ramaswamy co-founded a subscription-based search engine called Neeva in 2019, which is planning to roll out its own generative search feature that can summarize webpages, with footnotes, in the coming months.
ChatGPT doesn’t reveal the sources of its information. In fact, there’s a good chance its own creators can’t tell how it generates the answers it comes up with. That points to one of its biggest weaknesses: Sometimes, its answers are plain wrong.
Stack Overflow, a question-and-answer site for coders, temporarily banned its users from sharing advice from ChatGPT on Monday, saying that the thousands of answers that programmers were posting from the system were often incorrect.
My own experience bears this out. When I put my 12-year-old daughter’s English essay question into the system, it offered a long and eloquent analysis that sounded authoritative. But the answer was also riddled with mistakes, for instance stating that a literary character’s parents had died when they had not.
What’s disturbing about this flaw is that the inaccuracies are hard to spot, especially when ChatGPT sounds so confident. The system’s answers “typically look like they might be good,” according to Stack Overflow. And by OpenAI’s own admission, they are often plausible sounding. OpenAI had initially trained its system to be more cautious, but the result was that it declined questions it knew the answer to. By going the other way, the result is something like a college frat student bluffing their way through an essay after not studying. Fluent hogwash.
It’s unclear how common ChatGPT’s mistakes are. One estimate doing the rounds on Twitter is a rate of 2% to 5%. It may be more. That will make internet users wary of using ChatGPT for important information. Another strength for Google: it mostly makes money on transactional search queries for products and navigational searches to other sites, such as people typing in “Facebook” or “YouTube.” Those kinds of queries made up many of the top 100 Google searches of 2022. So long as ChatGPT doesn’t offer links to other sites, it is not encroaching too deeply on Google’s turf.But both those issues could evolve over time. ChatGPT could get more accurate as OpenAI expands the training of its model to more current parts of the web. To that end, OpenAI is working on a system called WebGPT, which it hopes will lead to more accurate answer to search queries, which will include also source citations. A combination of ChatGPT and WebGPT could be a powerful alternative to Google. And ChatGPT is already giving more accurate answers than OpenAI’s earlier systems.
ChatGPT amassed 1 million users in about five days. That is an extraordinary milestone: It took Instagram 2.5 months to reach that number, and ten months for Facebook. OpenAI isn’t publicly speculating about its future applications, but if its new chatbot starts sharing links to other websites, particularly those that sell things, that could spell real danger for Google.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”
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