The shift: Bing just made internet searches interesting again
By Kevin Roose
NEW YORK: I still remember the first time I used Google. I was a nerdy, internet-obsessed preteen, and for weeks afterward, I couldn’t stop telling my friends and relatives about the cool new search engine with the weird, Seussian name: how fast it retrieved results, how much slicker and more intuitive it was than existing search engines like AltaVista and WebCrawler, and how magical it felt to be able to call up knowledge from the depths of the internet.
I felt a similar sense of awe this week when I started using the new, A.I.-powered Bing. (Yes, Bing, Microsoft’s eternally mocked search engine. It’s good now. I know, I’m still adjusting, too.)
Microsoft released the new Bing, which is powered by artificial intelligence software from OpenAI, the maker of the popular chatbot ChatGPT, with great fanfare at an event at the company’s headquarters on Tuesday. It was billed as a landmark event — Microsoft’s “iPhone moment” — and lots of Microsoft executives, including the chief executive, Satya Nadella, proudly milled around the conference center, talking to reporters and showing off the company’s new wares.
But the real star was Bing itself or, rather, the artificial intelligence technology that has been plugged into Bing to help answer users’ questions and chat with them about any topic imaginable. (Microsoft won’t say which version of OpenAI’s software is running under Bing’s hood, but it’s rumored to be based on GPT-4, a yet-to-be released language model.)
Microsoft, which first invested in OpenAI in 2019 and re-upped with a reported $10 billion investment this year, is capitalising on a wave of recent progress in A.I. capabilities to try to catch up with Google, which has long held a dominant position in the search market. (And which has been spooked by all the recent ChatGPT hoopla into releasing new A.I. tools of its own.) Microsoft eventually plans to incorporate OpenAI’s technology into many of its products.
But the Bing relaunch is especially momentous for Microsoft, which has struggled to gain a foothold in search for years. If it works, it could chip away at Google’s dominance and some of the more than $100 billion in annual search advertising revenue that comes with it.
The new Bing, which is available only to a small group of testers now and will become more widely available soon, looks like a hybrid of a standard search engine and a GPT-style chatbot. Type in a prompt — say, “Write me a menu for a vegetarian dinner party” — and the left side of your screen fills up with the standard ads and links to recipe websites. On the right side, Bing’s A.I. engine starts typing out a response in full sentences, often annotated with links to the websites it’s retrieving information from.
To ask a follow-up question or make a more detailed request — for example, “Write a grocery list for that menu, sorted by aisle, with amounts needed to make enough food for eight people” — you can open up a chat window and type it. (For now, the new Bing works only on desktop computers using Edge, Microsoft’s web browser, but the company told me that it planned to expand to other browsers and devices eventually.
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