Now Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has decided he has little choice but to take that risk.
On Thursday, when Pichai announced fourth-quarter results that narrowly missed analyst estimates, he said Google would make its AI-based large language model, known as LaMDA, available “in the coming weeks and months,” and that people might use it as “a companion to search.”
A pledge to “focus on AI” is currently the course standard in Big Tech. Mark Zuckerberg said much the same thing this week when he described how AI would help improve Facebook’s products. But Google has more credibility than anyone else when it comes to artificial intelligence. It owns DeepMind, one of the pioneers of reinforcement learning and deep learning, an advanced approach to AI, and Google researchers invented the “transformer” technology that powers ChatGPT.
Google also has LaMDA, a large-language model trained on billions of words on the public internet, just like ChatGPT’s model. But chances are that LaMDA is even better. It benefits from a wider range of research talent at Google and massive amounts of computing power, not to mention feedback from millions of users for constant fine-tuning. One of Google’s own engineers even believed that LaMDA was sentient after chatting with it.
But the innovator’s dilemma forced Google to keep LaMDA hidden, fearing it could cannibalize its own search results or make offensive comments and wild mistakes. ChatGPT is known for its frequent inaccuracies, and as a smaller company, OpenAI can get away with that. Google, with its 3.5 billion searches per day, doesn’t have that luxury.
The crucial question now is how Google is going to integrate a chatbot into search, since people don’t use ChatGPT in the same way Google does. Remember, Google’s top 10 search terms are all brand names like Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon. This is because people often use Google to navigate to other sites. Other slang terms are often transactional, such as “restaurants near me” or “Samsung Galaxy phone.” These are not terms you would use for ChatGPT, and they are lucrative for Google.
Google will probably create an additional search category for something like “answers to conversations” in addition to images, maps, and news, and this “companion” will serve the long tail of informational searches that don’t make Google much money, like finding a recipe or a historical find event.
Where it should be extremely careful is to ensure that its own version of ChatGPT is not held liable for bad advice. It’s become second nature for people with a condition to Google their symptoms, but going to the company’s new search partner and getting bad medical advice could turn into another legal headache for Google and a danger to users.
Like it or not, Google needs to adapt to a world where content is increasingly being generated by AI. News site CNET is using AI to generate financial advice articles (more than half of them with errors), while online influencers are encouraging people to use ChatGPT as their own automated content farm. With the web flooded with even more spam than before, Google’s search algorithms will have to work harder to rank high-quality content.
The company struggled to define its AI strategy, declared an internal “code red” after ChatGPT became popular and reassigned teams to work on new AI prototypes. Pichai even recalled Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page to help determine Google’s response to ChatGPT.
But while Google previously bought other companies to help it build a powerful and lucrative ad tech stack, it can’t work its way to a stronger foothold in generative AI in the same way. Pressure from antitrust regulators mounts as a Justice Department lawsuit threatens to dissolve the company.
The painful irony for Google now is that it’s being punished for being both too dominant and not competitive enough. To follow that line, it must now put aside its famously cautious approach to innovation and use the expertise it has in house to meet the challenge of Microsoft-funded OpenAI. The fact that Pichai has said Google could launch its new service “in weeks” shows just how much he sees ChatGPT as a threat. Google normally doesn’t move that fast. It just has to make sure it doesn’t trip as it pulls out its secret weapon.
More from Bloomberg’s opinion:
• Google faces a serious threat from ChatGPT: Parmy Olson
• Understanding sensory overload in markets: John Authers
• Beware of ChatGPT trying to teach your kids math: Parmy Olson
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on technology. She is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and author of “We Are Anonymous.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion