Why did China ban ChatGPT?
Towards the end of February 2023, the Chinese government officially banned OpenAI’s ChatGPT and ordered companies such as Tencent and Ant Company to cut access to this program.
Infamous for comprehensive firewalls and strict internet censorship, China claims that ChatGPT is a tool that could possibly allow the US to spy and “spread false information in correlation with the US political propaganda”.
The truth is, this artificial intelligence model has been trained on information coming from Western countries, meaning that countries that have been in disputes with the US, for example, feel like they need to defend the dominant narrative in their nation. Oftentimes, these two narratives would collide.
Either way, it’s no secret that ChatGPT is biased but citizens should be able to choose for themselves whether they want to use the service or not. That’s why, you can often hear global media referring to the Chinese economic system as “state capitalism”.
However, it's not as easy. Most of these programs have been disabled or removed completely, displaying the message “violating relevant laws and regulations”.
So, what does this mean for internet users in China?
For example, if you were to search ChatGPT online, no results would come up on Chinese platforms.
Now, according to Nikkei Asia, even if the ban wasn’t imposed, tech companies wouldn’t have made use of ChatGPT because they would eventually be faced with consequences.
Even if there were no such ban, we would never take the initiative to add ChatGPT to our platforms because its responses are uncontrollable. There will inevitably be some users who ask the chatbot politically sensitive questions, but the platform will be held accountable for the results.
Nikkei Asia’s interlocutor
It’s also important to emphasize that, even prior to this decision, OpenAI wasn’t available in many countries, such as China, Iran, Russia and parts of Africa. Moreover, ChatGPT was around 5s slower when giving responses in Chinese compared to English.
What will China’s chatbot look like?
China’s known for developing domestic versions of all apps and services its citizens use, so it’s no wonder that Chinese tech firms and universities are working hard on developing in-country AI chatbots.
But not only that, some have even posed the question of how come China didn’t invent ChatGPT in the first place, keeping in mind that it possessed more data than the US and was recognized as an AI superpower.
According to Li Yuan from the New York Times, the main reason is the government meddling in China’s tech industry, messing things up. That is, China’s two main priorities – leadership in AI and control over information – are somewhat of a conflict.
In other words, Chinese developers are confronted with a serious challenge to develop a worthy alternative to ChatGPT and to fix all flaws of prior domestic alternatives. Moreover, they have to do their job properly while living up to the expectations of the Chinese government.
It definitely doesn’t seem like an easy job.
How will Chinese alternatives differ from what we’ve seen from the existing chatbots?
Or, in other words, what’s important to China, in terms of chatbots, to create and protect?
Let’s look at some examples of domestic chatbot alternatives:
- Plato was released by Baidu in 2021. Its results were often shared as jokes, one of the most popular being “3+3=5”. Now it’s often described as a failure, mostly due to improper information provided during training.
- Ernie Bot (“Wen Xin Yi Yan” in Chinese) is scheduled to be released in March, again by Baidu, but is said to be not only more advanced than Plato but compared to other competitors as well.
All the major players – Alibaba, JD.com, Tencent, NetEase and others – have announced their versions of conversational chatbots.
From what we know so far, one thing is certain – the Chinese version of ChatGPT won’t be used exclusively as a chatbot but will rather be treated as a conversational AI application for cloud products, education applications and e-commerce solutions.
In other words, it will be integrated with products of different companies, which completely makes sense having in mind the newly-emerged term mentioned earlier, “state capitalism”.
Ernie Bot will … enhance the user experience and users will be much more dependent on us for all kinds of tasks and needs, therefore significantly expanding the market size of search (engines).
CEO Baidu Robin Li. Source: Asia Financial
But the real problem is that Chinese users are in a weird position now: there’s this whole hype around ChatGPT, and chatbots in general, in every area of our lives but, without domestic alternatives, there is an unanswered demand in China.
For example, one person stated that she previously hired freelancers on Fiverr to write posts for $20, whereas now she gets material from ChatGPT, at the same quality she needs for her business.
Moreover, another person stated she was using ChatGPT’s potential for college essays but, since she couldn’t access the platform, she had to come up with a clever solution – she was using the aforementioned “mini-programs” as intermediaries to ask ChatGPT a question for her and then send her the results back.
This could possibly put even more pressure on Chinese developers but it could also mean that users would be highly disappointed if the final solution doesn’t turn out to be flawless (spoiler alert: it probably won’t).