When Ernie Bot was released on March 16, the response was a mix of excitement and disappointment. Many people deemed its performance mediocre relative to the previously released ChatGPT.
But most people simply weren’t able to see it for themselves. The launch event didn’t feature a live demonstration, and later, to actually try out the bot, Chinese users need to have a Baidu account and apply for a use license that could take as long as three months to come through. Because of this, some people who got access early were selling secondhand Baidu accounts on e-commerce sites, charging anywhere from a few bucks to over $100.
More than a dozen Chinese generative AI chatbots were released after Ernie Bot. They are all pretty similar to their Western counterparts in that they are capable of conversing in text—answering questions, solving math problems (somewhat), writing programming code, and composing poems. Some of them also allow input and output in other forms, like audio, images, data visualization, or radio signals.
Like Ernie Bot, these services came with restrictions for user access, making it difficult for the general public in China to experience them. Some were allowed only for business uses.
One of the main reasons Chinese tech companies limited access to the general public was concern that the models could be used to generate politically sensitive information. While the Chinese government has shown it’s extremely capable of censoring social media content, new technologies like generative AI could push the censorship machine to unknown and unpredictable levels. Most current chatbots like those from Baidu and ByteDance have built-in moderation mechanisms that would refuse to answer sensitive questions about Taiwan or Chinese president Xi Jinping, but a general release to China’s 1.4 billion people would almost certainly allow users to find more clever ways to circumvent censors.