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Laptop displaying the Baidu logo and tablet displaying OpenAI's ChatGPT website homepage

ChatGPT fever has reached China despite legal and technical barriers.

What’s new: Two months after its debut, ChatGPT is a viral sensation on Chinese social media, MIT Technology Review reported. Companies in that country are racing to cash in.

Prompt: OpenAI doesn’t serve the model in China, but users there are reaching it through virtual private networks and offshore services that charge a fee per prompt. The chatbot reportedly impressed users in China with its ability to answer prompts in Chinese and its grasp of the country’s popular culture.

Output: The country’s major tech firms in recent weeks revealed plans to provide their own equivalent services.

  • Baidu announced Wenxin Yiyan (in English, Ernie Bot), a chatbot based on the company’s ERNIE language model, and plans to integrate it with its search engine and cloud services.
  • Alibaba is developing an unnamed prototype for integration with its enterprise chat app DingTalk.
  • Online retailer plans to launch ChatJD for tasks like customer service and generating marketing copy and financial reports.
  • NetEase, a developer of online video games, intends to integrate a chatbot into one of its most popular games, Justice Online Mobile. The model will generate customized dialogue, characters, and other output.

Behind the news: Using an earlier generation of technology, Microsoft Research in China developed Xiaoice, a chatbot that continues to enjoy widespread use. More recently, Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence developed the 1.75 trillion-parameter WuDao 2.0. Nonetheless, Chinese researchers face unique obstacles in natural language processing.

  • AI research in China has tended to focus on computer vision applications like autonomous driving and face recognition rather than language applications.
  • Large-scale, Chinese-language datasets are difficult to compile. The internet contains far less Chinese than English text, and the portion of the internet available behind China’s Great Firewall is limited.
  • In September, the U.S. government restricted sales to Chinese customers of high-performance processors used to train state-of-the-art AI systems.
  • A 2021 regulatory crackdown on some of China’s most prosperous tech companies incentivized a more cautious approach to growth. Restrictions have relaxed, but some observers cite a chilling effect on innovation.
  • Some earlier chatbots have run afoul of government restrictions on internet content. Whether large language models, which are well known to generate problematic output, follow the rules remains to be seen.

Why it matters: ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing chat, Google’s Bard, and other chatbots built by U.S. tech companies are optimized for the English language. Chinese tech companies are scrambling to capitalize on the public’s hunger for a chatbot that’s compatible with their language and culture.

We’re thinking: Chinese speakers find ChatGPT exciting despite its relative lack of training in their language. When a model is sufficiently large, a large training corpus enables it to generalize to new languages that may not have much training data. This property offers hope for making large language models work with languages that have far less data than Chinese.


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