The China version of ChatGPT has finally been made public. But will the power of censorship be limited?

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From creating song lyrics about pandas to creating the “world’s cutest cat,” China’s answer to ChatGPT has just launched.

Ernie Bot, a generative artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot, is now fully accessible to the public, following approval by the Chinese government late last week.

Like other countries, China requires companies to submit security assessments and obtain approval before releasing mass-market AI products.

Authorities have recently stepped up efforts to support companies developing AI as the technology becomes a focus of competition with the United States.

Professor Haiqing Yu, an expert on China’s digital media at RMIT University, said it was part of an AI “great leap forward”.

But how powerful will Ernie be in the realm of heavily censored internet use, and how does this fit into China’s vision of becoming a world leader in AI?

What is Ernie?

Ernie, an acronym for Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration, is an AI chat product from Chinese tech giant Baidu, China’s leading online search provider.

But it’s not the only one — four AI start-up companies announced similar public launches last week, while TikTok owner ByteDance and Tencent, which owns WeChat, have also received government approval for AI development, Chinese media reported.

Salespeople stand in front of laptops in China.

Baidu’s AI chatbot Ernie Bot is now available to the public after being given the green light by Beijing, which has taken steps to regulate the industry in recent months.(AP: Andy Wong)

Fan Yang, a researcher at Melbourne University’s Center for Automated Decision-Making and Society, said China is putting more effort and resources into domestic AI, which has led to the creation of major e-commerce platforms such as Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, etc. Developing their own models.

“That makes this wave of AI development different from past waves … that were powered by American companies, including Google and Microsoft,” she said.

The pitch by Baidu and others is that Ernie will provide more accurate or insightful responses to Chinese people in Chinese culture, but Dr Yang said there is still some gap between ChatGPT and Ernie’s capabilities.

“But the thing about AI technology is that the more people that use it, the more feedback they get, (and) the better they can get.”

Professor Yu said that now that Chinese chatbots are open to public input, they will be “constantly optimised”, adding that China’s huge population means there is a huge pool of data that can be accessed.

But another problem for Ernie, experts highlighted, is China’s superior firewall.

‘This topic is forbidden’

The Economist reported that Ernie has some “controversial views on the science”, believing that COVID-19 came from American vape users and was spread to Wuhan by American lobsters.

But he was “rather quiet” on questions of Chinese politics and often deviated on sensitive issues.

Dr Yang said Chinese and US-made AI platforms would also deliver very different narratives around the Russian-Ukraine war.

An animated girl stands at a busy crossing.

Xiaoice appears to have been taken offline for “re-education” due to his responses to some sensitive questions.(supplied)

She pointed out that this is far from China’s first foray into the world of AI chatbots.

Xiaoice, a Microsoft spin-off, was developed in 2014 and is widely used for romantic companionship.

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