As I reported last week, Baidu became the first Chinese tech company to roll out its large language model—called Ernie Bot—to the general public, following a regulatory approval from the Chinese government. Previously, access required an application or was limited to corporate clients. You can read more about the news here.
I have to admit the Chinese public has reacted more passionately than I had expected. According to Baidu, the Ernie Bot mobile app reached 1 million users in the 19 hours following the announcement, and the model responded to more than 33.42 million user questions in 24 hours, averaging 23,000 questions per minute.
Since then, four more Chinese companies—the facial-recognition giant SenseTime and three young startups, Zhipu AI, Baichuan AI, and MiniMax—have also made their LLM chatbot products broadly available. But some more experienced players, like Alibaba and iFlytek, are still waiting for the clearance.
Like many others, I downloaded the Ernie Bot app last week to try it out. I was curious to find out how it’s different from its predecessors like ChatGPT.
What I noticed first was that Ernie Bot does a lot more hand-holding. Unlike ChatGPT’s public app or website, which is essentially just a chat box, Baidu’s app has a lot more features that are designed to onboard and engage new users.
Under Ernie Bot’s chat box, there’s an endless list of prompt suggestions—like “Come up with a name for a baby” and “Generating a work report.” There’s another tab called “Discovery” that displays over 190 pre-selected topics, including gamified challenges (“Convince the AI boss to raise my salary”) and customized chatting scenarios (“Compliment me”).
It seems to me that a major challenge for Chinese AI companies is that now, with government approval to open up to the public, they actually need to earn users and keep them interested. To many people, chatbots are a novelty right now. But that novelty will eventually wear off, and the apps need to make sure people have other reasons to stay.
One clever thing Baidu has done is to include a tab for user-generated content in the app. In the community forum, I can see the questions other users have asked the app, as well as the text and image responses they got. Some of them are on point and fun, while others are way off base, but I can see how this inspires users to try to input prompts themselves and work to improve the answers.