Inside the ChatGPT race in China
Most people who’ve experienced ChatGPT firsthand in China have accessed it through VPNs or paid workarounds—for example, clever entrepreneurs have essentially rented out OpenAI accounts or asked ChatGPT questions on buyers’ behalf, at the price of a few bucks per 20 questions. But even more people are seeing the results through screenshots and short social videos showing ChatGPT’s answers, both of which have swept Chinese social media this week.
Beyond the allure of the new and hard to access, it’s likely been so popular because ChatGPT’s ability to answer questions in Chinese has exceeded the expectations of many people (including me!). GPT-3—the previous model of this tech from OpenAI, which was released in 2020 and was also unavailable in China—was not very good at working with Chinese content. And while a few Chinese companies developed localized chatbot alternatives to GPT-3, they have often been derided by users as predictable, repetitive, and frustratingly off base.
Compared with them, ChatGPT is surprisingly good at forming natural, albeit a bit formal, answers that seem to understand traditional and pop-cultural references in China. It can mimic the writing style of Hu Xijin, former editor in chief of China’s main propaganda mouthpiece, the Global Times; it knows meme songs in Chinese and can create similar lyrics from scratch; and it can write in the emoji-filled style of influencer posts from the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu.
As in English, the accuracy of ChatGPT’s answers in Chinese often falls apart upon closer examination, and it makes factual mistakes. But the fact that a chatbot developed by an American company displays this much understanding of contemporary China has still impressed the public. I for one was in awe reading many of the ChatGPT answers: Wow, it definitely does a better Hu Xijin impersonation than I do!
So it’s not a surprise that Chinese tech companies now want a slice of the action. Baidu, the search and AI company that’s arguably best positioned to introduce a ChatGPT alternative, will finish testing its “Ernie Bot” in March and include it in most of its software and hardware products; Alibaba’s research division DAMO Academy is testing a similar tool internally; and 360, a cybersecurity and search company, said it will release a demo “ASAP.” Other tech companies like NetEase, iFlytek, and JD.com also want to use their own AI chatbots in specific scenarios, like education, e-commerce, and fintech.
The current action is driven by a mix of excitement and FOMO. On the one hand, very few tech products have managed to grab as much public attention as ChatGPT—which has given Chinese companies a rare confidence boost that the public can still be super excited and hopeful about a new technology. On the other hand, there’s clearly pressure on these companies not to miss out on this massive trend, or at least to look as if they haven’t.
That’s also probably why we’re seeing a bit of … let’s say … irrational corporate action as well. The Chinese stock market basically went into a frenzy looking for any Chinese company whose business shows even a hint of relation to AI or chatbots; for instance, Secoo, a failing luxury e-commerce company with little background in AI, announced on February 6 that it would explore using ChatGPT-like tech in its service; its stock price increased 124.4% that day. Meanwhile, Wang Huiwen, a cofounder of China’s delivery giant Meituan, posted on social media that he’s investing $50 million to start a ChatGPT-like company; in the time since, he has already secured $230 million more in VC funding, despite the fact that he’s admitted he doesn’t understand AI technology and is still learning.
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.”