October 3, 2023

When San Francisco startup OpenAI released ChatGPT late last year, AI chatbots looked like the first major threat to Google in decades. Technology insiders believe that, one day, it may make Google’s Internet search engine look old and dull.

Google executives have vowed to respond quickly to protect the company’s $162 billion franchise and said artificial intelligence will pervade its products, from its search engine to email.

On Wednesday, at its annual meeting in Mountain View, Calif., the company showed off some of what it has been working on. Google said its search engine will begin integrating artificial intelligence-generated responses at the top of query results pages and allow users to ask follow-up questions.

It’s an important step in Google’s embrace of artificial intelligence, which many experts believe could reshape the tech industry. Google, a pioneer in the technology, has been reluctant to do much with it because of the risks that artificial intelligence poses, such as spreading disinformation.

But Google and others in Silicon Valley have been surprised by ChatGPT’s success. In December, Google announced “Code Red” to find ways to integrate AI into its own products.

Google said at Wednesday’s conference that it has now embedded its latest artificial intelligence technology in 25 products, including features that search for updates and help users compose emails in Gmail.

The company is also doubling down on its hardware ambitions, releasing two new smartphones and a tablet. At the high end is Google’s first folding phone, the Pixel Fold. For the budget-conscious, it offers the Pixel 7A, a $500 phone.

Google has been competing with OpenAI and its partner Microsoft. In February, Microsoft demonstrated how the latest version of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, combines chatbots with technology developed by OpenAI.

But Google is still taking a more measured approach than its main competitors. The company did not include a chatbot in its search engine that is prone to spinning up false information. Instead, Google says it will use artificial intelligence to provide answers that will be corroborated by authoritative sites and will continue to include ads in the responses.

Users expect the company to have high-quality information, and Google doesn’t want to undermine that trust, Liz Reid, Google’s vice president of search, said in an interview ahead of the conference.

“The technology is very early,” Ms Reid said. “It’s been amazing in some ways, but it has its own set of challenges in others.”

To use the latest search features, users will need to sign up for Search Labs, a new program that allows users and companies to test experimental features. The New York Times previously reported that Google will make the updates available to as many as 30 million people in the US by the end of the year.

In March, Google released Bard, an experimental chatbot designed to compete with ChatGPT. Google on Wednesday expanded access to the tool, bringing it to more than 180 countries and territories in English, and in Japanese and Korean.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai also discussed the company’s efforts to build more powerful AI technology. He unveiled the latest version of the more powerful technology, Pathways Language Model 2, or PaLM 2, and said work has begun on a larger model called Gemini.

AI models are huge systems for developing artificial intelligence, and so far, only a few companies have the resources to develop them. While securing the search business is critical to the company’s future, Google could make billions by allowing other companies to use its cloud computing services to develop its own artificial intelligence services.

Google says that by running Bard on PaLM 2, which can generate emails, shopping lists and poetry, it becomes smarter and more creative. The chatbot will be able to display and interpret images and allow users to export responses to Gmail, Docs and other applications.

Since launching ChatGPT, Google has faced criticism from tech industry insiders for not moving fast enough to improve its search. But Ms Reed said the company’s large number of users was “the loudest chorus we should be hearing”.

“There’s still a huge opportunity in the world in terms of meeting people’s information needs, and there will always be a lot of people trying to solve this problem, and I think that’s great,” she said. “It’s going to help us — help everyone — evolve.”

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