Chinese tech giant Baidu releases its answer to ChatGPT
As expected, Ernie Bot (the name stands for “Enhanced Representation from kNowledge IntEgration;” its Chinese name is 文心一言, or Wenxin Yiyan) performs particularly well on tasks specific to Chinese culture, like explaining a historical fact or writing a traditional poem. (Li says as a Chinese company, Baidu “has to perform better than any pre-trained LLMs” in terms of understanding Chinese.)
But the highlight of the product release was Ernie Bot’s multimodal output feature, which ChatGPT and GPT-4 do not offer (OpenAI has bragged about GPT-4’s ability to analyze a photo of the contents of a refrigerator and come up with recipe suggestions, but the model generates only text). Li showed a recorded interaction with the bot where it generated an illustration of a futuristic city transportation system, used Chinese dialect to read out a text answer, and edited and subtitled a video based on the same text. However, in later testing after the launch, a Chinese publication failed to reproduce the video generation.
The Chinese public has been hungry for a ChatGPT alternative; both OpenAI and the Chinese government have barred individuals in China from using the American chatbot.
But so far, Ernie Bot has been made available only to an extremely select pool of Chinese creators. Companies can apply for API access. But Baidu has not said whether the technology will be available for consumers. It’s also unclear when the bot will be integrated into Baidu’s other products, like its search engine or self-driving cars, as the company promised.
Compared with the rollouts of ChatGPT and GPT-4, Ernie Bot’s release felt rushed. The presentation did not feature any live demo but instead used five pre-recorded sessions. Li also repeatedly said that Ernie is still imperfect and will improve once it reaches more users. Baidu’s stock price slipped by 6.4% on Thursday, and social media is full of disappointed reactions.
Li seemed prepared for such a response. “People have been asking me for a while: Why are you releasing [Ernie Bot] so soon? Are you ready for it?” he said during his presentation. “From what I personally saw when conducting internal tests on Ernie Bot, it’s not perfect. But why do we want to release it today? Because the market demands it.”
The race to be the first
While a few ChatGPT-style bots have already been released by Chinese companies or researchers, none of them has shown satisfying results. MOSS, an English-language chatbot developed by Fudan University researchers in Shanghai, was met with such high demand that its server broke down within a day of launch in late February. It has yet to return. MiniMax, a Chinese startup, released a chatbot called Inspo earlier this month, but it has been suspected of merely repackaging the GPT-3.5 model developed by OpenAI.
Many people expected that Baidu would be the first Chinese company to go head to head with ChatGPT. Back in 2019, Baidu released a GPT-3 equivalent—Ernie 3.0. It also released a decently powerful text-to-image model called Ernie-ViLG last year.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”