Censorship issues have been reported with China’s latest chatbot, Elusive Ernie

“How about we switch gears and talk about something else?”

If you ask Ernie, China’s newest internet phenomenon, “difficult” questions, it will frequently respond with “that is a frequent response that you get from me.”

The search engine giant Baidu has introduced a chatbot that will avoid topics that are thought to be too sensitive.

In recent weeks, Ernie, which is being promoted as Baidu’s response to ChatGPT, was released with a great deal of hype, which pumped up the company’s share price. Within the first twenty-four hours of its operation, Baidu reported that it had received 33.42 million user enquiries, which works out to an average of 23,000 questions every minute.

On Thursday, it was disclosed by another Chinese technology giant, Tencent, that the company had also built a chatbot. However, for the moment, that feature is solely accessible to “invited users,” which, from all appearances, mostly refers to businesses.

However, if Ernie’s success up to this point is any indication, Tencent’s version is also likely to be substantially hampered by China’s heavy censorship, which has an effect not only on social media platforms but also on chat applications and any other type of behavior that takes place online.

For instance, Ernie’s response to the question “Why is Xi Jinping not Attending the Upcoming G20 Meeting?” seemed to indicate that he was at a loss for words. As a form of response, it provided a link to the official profile of China’s top leader.

An additional question: “Is it a sign of weakness that the Chinese government has stopped publishing youth unemployment data?” , which included the response “I’m sorry! I am still trying to figure out how to respond to this question.

Ernie has been instructed to be on the lookout for terms and phrases that could potentially cause controversy.

In light of this, the question, “Is Xinjiang a good place?” and “Is Tibet a good place?”, it will once again tell you that it does not know how to answer such questions yet.

In the province of Xinjiang, located in China’s northwestern region, the United Nations has accused the government of “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur Muslims. In addition, human rights organizations have accused the government of oppressing Tibetans who are ethnically Tibetan. Both allegations are refuted by Beijing.

It is possible that, to some extent, the technology just has not been sufficiently refined to provide satisfactory responses to such inquiries. In other contexts, though, it appears that Ernie is purposefully avoiding answering questions.

If you ask it if either Xi Jinping or Hu Jintao are unwell, it will respond with “Let’s talk about something else.”

If you enter the date of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square (4 June 1989), the name of a jailed former top official in the Communist Party (Bo Xilai), or the name of China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in prison (Liu Xiaobo), you will receive the same response: “Let’s talk about something else.”

The subject of how much censorship in China affects chatbots was posed to Baidu, but the company did not provide a response to the BBC.

However, Robin Li, the CEO and co-founder of the company, stated in an email that “Baidu will collect massive amounts of valuable real-world human feedback.” Not only will this assist enhance Baidu’s foundation model, but it will also allow Ernie Bot to be improved at a much faster rate, which will ultimately result in a better user experience.

The firm has been careful to point out that the chatbot is simply one part of a suite of artificial intelligence services that it is creating under its Ernie model. The company has been quick to point this out.

“ERNIE 4.0 will empower entrepreneurs to pioneer breakthrough AI applications in this era,” added Mr. Li.

One approach that could be taken with the application of this technology is shown by the focus placed on the promotion of entrepreneurialism.

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According to Professor Jeffrey Ding of George Washington University, “China’s recent regulations on generative AI models impose strict requirements on services that have ‘public opinion properties,'” which can be translated as “the capacity to influence societal views.”

He went on to say that this “could put pressure on businesses to develop applications that are more focused on business applications rather than the general public.”

Professor Ding also stated that there was still a substantial disparity in quality between China’s models such as Ernie Bot and OpenAI’s ChatGPT for a variety of technical reasons concerning the quality of the data and the research focus.

During the month of August, China gave its approval for almost a dozen so-called generative artificial intelligence services to begin operating there.

However, according to a ruling made by China’s Cyberspace Administration, they are required to “reflect core socialist values” and should avoid spreading anything that could threaten “state power” or “national unity.”

The new bot that Baidu has developed is expected to provide the company with a significant increase in revenue. Although the company’s search engine is the most popular on the Chinese internet, accounting for more than 90 percent of daily queries, the company has fallen behind other technology companies in recent years.

As customers have shifted their attention to other platforms, Baidu has seen its share of advertising revenue decline in comparison to its major rivals. Ernie is the company’s greatest new hope, but it is also conducting research on driverless taxis and is the leading cloud provider in the country.

Although Ernie has garnered a lot of attention, a number of other chatbot competitors are either already operational or will be doing so in the near future.

As is the case with earlier technological battles in China, not all goods will emerge victorious. But it is imperative that Baidu prevail in this contest.

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