Silicon Valley’s culture of releasing products before they’re perfected is being tested by Google’s failed rollout of Bard, an A.I. chatbot it hopes can compete with Open AI’s Chat GPT.
Google introduced Bard via a demonstration video last month. A user prompted Bard: “What new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope can I tell my 9 year old about?” It answered that the telescope took the “very first pictures of a planet outside of our own solar system.” But an astrophysicist on Twitter pointed out that isn’t true. The first image was taken in 2004 with another telescope. Google’s stock subsequently fell 11 percent to $95 per share, a loss that took $100 billion off its market value. Bard is expected to launch for public use in the coming weeks, according to the company. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The premature release of Bard is part of a pattern of Big Tech companies introducing products before the technology is perfected or there is a clear market. In come cases that works just fine—companies from PayPal to Uber faced various obstacles before reaching mass adoption—but there have been some notable misfires, too.
Google Glass, Amazon’s Fire Phone and Microsoft Tay all flopped in the last decade, whether from technological shortcomings or having a limited audience. More recently, Meta rebranded its company and spent billions to focus on the metaverse, despite uncertain interest from its users.
“Silicon Valley scaled fast, but maybe slow cooking is better sometimes,” said Riitta Katila, a Stanford University engineering professor.
Chatbots get better with use
Chat GPT is the artificial intelligence-powered chatbot created by OpenAI with investments from Microsoft. While chatbots aren’t new, OpenAI’s invention impressed experts around the world as one of the most advanced bots to date. Microsoft added the tool to its search engine Bing in February, which pressured Google to quicken production on its own chatbot. “It’s like code red at Google right now,” Katila said.
In some cases, releasing flawed technology is better than spending time refining it, said Ajay Agrawal, a University of Toronto professor who researches the economics of A.I.
The more a chatbot is used, the smarter it becomes, said Agrawal. Chatbots won’t be perfect when they launch because they need interactions with users to refine their intelligence. “You don’t want your competitors getting all the feedback and improving their model if you don’t release because it isn’t perfect,” he said.
It’s also possible there will be only be one to three companies that dominate the A.I. search engine market, he said, so the “price for winning is huge.”
“For Google, the risk of waiting (to release Bard) is worse than losing a percent of market share” when it makes mistakes, Agrawal said. Consumers are likely to see other unfinished models racing to production in the coming months because only few chatbots can dominate the industry, he said.
High stakes for Google
Chat GPT has given incorrect answers to prompts as well, but Microsoft was more inclined to release its chatbot with flaws because it has a minimal search engine market share to begin with, said Sruthi Thatchenkery, a strategy professor at Vanderbilt University.
Google has 93 percent of the global search engine market share, according to a report by Statcounter, a web traffic analytics website. Bing, owned by Microsoft, follows with just 2.8 percent of the market. Since Bing’s market share is so comparably low, all Chat GPT could do was improve it, Thatchenkery said. And it now seems like Bing is an actual competitor, she said.
Internet users are also relying less on Google search than they have in the past.
“Something like almost 40 percent of young people—when they’re looking for a place for lunch—they don’t go to Google Maps or Search,” Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google executive, said at a conference last year. “They go to TikTok or Instagram.”
Along with social media platforms edging into Google’s market, more online shoppers start their searches for products on Amazon than Google, according to a report by Insider Intelligence, a market research company.
With Bard giving incorrect answers, Thatchenkery said, Google is risking its reputation at a time when its audience seems to be slipping away. But it is willing to take the risk to ensure it doesn’t fall behind, she said.
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