Why China’s ChatGPT Challengers Are Struggling To Catch Up

Chinese companies are developing their own AI chatbots, but will censorship considerations and chip shortages slow them down?

ChatGPT has been taking the western world by storm – over 100 million people are now thought to have had a conversation with the Chatbot in the three months since its launch, and it has since been incorporated into Microsoft Teams and search engine Bing.

Unfortunately, due to the Chinese government’s authoritarian laws presiding over the free speech of its citizens, it’s not officially accessible in the country – and the ruling party is clamping down on other ways to access it.

Alongside all this, Chinese companies like Baidu, Tencent, and ecommerce giant Ali Baba have been quietly researching and developing competing technology. Here’s how they’re doing so far – and what might slow them down.

China’s ChatBots: What’s Out There?

The release of ChatGPT for Bing – as well as the imminent launch of Google’s Bard AI chatbot – does make it feel like China is a world away from releasing a genuine competitor to either platform. But in reality, they don’t seem that far behind.

Perhaps the most significant project currently taking place is Ernie Bot, a chatbot being developed by the Chinese search engine Baidu and scheduled to launch in March.

Baidu CEO Robin Li has said that the bot is designed for Chinese language speakers and the Chinese market more generally, making it a more suitable platform, in theory, for citizens of the world’s largest country than its western analogs.

Jack Ma’s ecommerce behemoth Ali Baba has made similar inroads and is currently testing a ChatGPT alternative internally before releasing it to the public.

On top of this, it was revealed this week that Tencent Holdings, which owns WeChat, has created a team to develop a ChatGPT competitor, currently called “Hunyuan AI”.

The South China Morning Post reported that the language model achieved a record-high score on the Chinese Language Understanding Evaluation (CLUE) test.

AI and Censorship: A Headache for Authoritarians

The Chinese companies currently pumping money into AI projects are forced to contend with something that western companies like OpenAI don’t need to worry about: ensuring their chatbots aren’t violating the draconian censorship laws enforced by the CCP by simply thinking freely.

China has already made it extremely difficult to access the non-compliant ChatGPT for this reason. If you want to access the service from inside the country, you’ll need a VPN or proxy server, but reports suggest that Beijing is also clamping down on these avenues to access too.

It may be easy to ensure censored or banned content doesn’t appear on Chinese search engines, but a Chatbot designed to produce original (or quasi-original) answers is far more unpredictable and difficult to control than a web-crawling device.

“Even if Baidu launches Ernie Bot as promised, chances are high it will quickly be suspended,” Xu Liang, the lead developer at Hangzhou-based YuanYu Intelligence, told the Washington Post. “There will simply be too much moderation to do.”

Liang’s own Chatbot, ChatYuan, was suspended shortly after his company released it to the public.

The Chinese government itself has made a number of statements about the role they see AI playing in Chinese society in the near future.

Conceptually, however, it’s difficult to imagine how a chatbot developed by a private company could generate fresh, conversational content that didn’t violate China’s censorship policies without intrusive government oversight of the datasets being used to train the bot, or hardline content moderation processes that defeat the point of the technology.

Chip Supply Poses Challenge for Chatbots

Despite challenges when it comes to contending with censorship laws, it’s clear that the desire to compete with ChatGPT is strong – but whether the country’s biggest companies will have the hardware components to do so is questionable at present.

“If China wants to create its own ChatGPT, we need tens of thousands of A100 chips to provide the necessary computing power,” Tsinghua University professor Zheng Weimin explained at the Global AI conference in Shanghai last weekend.

A100 chips are high-performance graphic processors manufactured by Nvidia – but the company is now restricted by the US government from selling the product in China.

What’s more, the popularity of ChatGPT has caused the price of such chips to surge by 50%, making them even harder to come by.

ChatGPT: Not the Only One Chatting

It’s important to remember that it’s not just China making ChatGPT alternatives. There are a number of free alternatives already on the market, and with ChatGPT often at capacity, it’s good to have a plan b in mind when this occurs.

ChatSonic is a great example of a ChatGPT alternative that’s actually worth using. Not only can it provide you with answers to a variety of multi-faceted queries, but it can also generate AI images.

YouChat is also worth a look at if you like the idea of being shown an AI-generated answer and web pages relevant to your query, and you don’t even need an account to try it out.

With much stricter regulations to worry about than their US counterparts, Chinese businesses developing AI tools really have their work cut out. The launch of Baidu’s Ernie Bot, which is just weeks away, will be the first real indication of precisely how close the country is to developing a ChatGPT alternative to be reckoned with.

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Written by:
Aaron Drapkin is a Lead Writer at Tech.co. He has been researching and writing about technology, politics, and society in print and online publications since graduating with a Philosophy degree from the University of Bristol five years ago. As a writer, Aaron takes a special interest in VPNs, cybersecurity, and project management software. He has been quoted in the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, The Daily Mail, Computer Weekly, Cybernews, and the Silicon Republic speaking on various privacy and cybersecurity issues, and has articles published in Wired, Vice, Metro, ProPrivacy, The Week, and Politics.co.uk covering a wide range of topics.
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