Six months ago, Google didn’t appear remotely worried about its search business. Then OpenAI’s ChatGPT was unleashed, and Microsoft’s Bing spawned a chatbot.
At Google’s annual I/O conference today, the search giant announced that it will infuse results with generative artificial intelligence technology similar to that behind ChatGPT. The company is launching an experimental version of its prized search engine that incorporates text generation like that powering ChatGPT and other advanced chatbots.
Google’s reimagined search still involves typing a query, and it still responds with links to websites, snippets of content, and ads. But in some situations, the top of the page will feature text synthesized by AI that pulls from information found on different sources across the web, and link to those webpages. A user can ask follow up questions to get more specific information.
A query about the coronation of Britain’s new king might be met with a couple of paragraphs summarizing the event. If asked about ebikes, Google’s algorithms can list bullet-point recaps of product reviews published by various websites, and link to online stores where a user can make a purchase. The revamped version of search will be accessible in the US via a new feature called Search Labs, but it will not be activated by default or for all Google users.
Google’s AI-infused search is considerably tamer than ChatGPT, eschewing an anthropomorphized persona and avoiding topics that might be deemed controversial, such as politics and medical or financial advice. When asked if Joe Biden is a good president or for information about different US states’ abortion laws, for example, Google’s generative AI product declined to answer.
“The technology is very early on, it has its challenges, and we will make mistakes certainly,” says Liz Reid, vice president of search at Google, who gave WIRED a preview of the new features ahead of I/O.
Google is moving quickly to add ChatGPT-like features to search, but whether users will find them useful remains to be seen. Product searches, for instance, synthesized material from different reviews, but it was not immediately obvious how the brief summaries might improve the search experience.
The unpolished feel of these new features may reflect the fact that their launch is a defensive move. Google has invested huge sums and major resources in AI over recent years, with CEO Sundar Pichai often calling the company “AI first.” Yet Google still found itself wrong-footed with the arrival of ChatGPT, a surprisingly clever and garrulous—though also fundamentally flawed—chatbot from OpenAI.
ChatGPT is powered by a machine learning model trained to predict the words likely to follow a string of text by digesting huge amounts of text, including vast numbers of web pages. Additional training, provided by humans rating the quality of the bot’s responses, made ChatGPT more adept at answering questions and holding a conversation.