“It’s a new day in search,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said Tuesday during an event at the company headquarters in Redmond, Washington. “The race starts today… we’re going to move fast.” Those words coming from one of the most powerful executives in Silicon Valley mirror what Steve Jobs said when he unveiled the iPhone in 2007. “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone, and here it is.” Though made at different points of time in different contexts, both highlight the imminent change they usher in the fundamentals of tech. Microsoft’s recent announcement incorporating OpenAI’s ChatGPT into Bing search and Edge browser is being hailed as a disruptor moment, like the world has not seen since the arrival of the iPhone sixteen years ago. If the gamble pays off, it could change the way we search the web, giving users information in a condensed form based on multiple sources instead of visiting individual websites. What search like today looks will become a thing of the past.
Microsoft is trying to reinvent search with the help of OpenAI, the generative AI behind the sensational ChatGPT AI chatbot which has amassed 100 million users in just two months of its launch. If you go to Google, which currently dominates the search market both on desktop and mobile, you input a search, scroll through results, and get onto a website. Although visually the search results may look different from two decades back and a lot faster, the core idea hasn’t changed a bit even though a user’s search behaviour is drastically different now.
However, Redmond is thinking beyond conventional search. It wants to take advantage of generative AI to give a human-like response when a user types a query using its Bing search engine which is being fired up using a next-generation “large-engine” model that will be more powerful than ChatGPT.
In most basic terms, ChatGPT is a conversational AI-powered chatbot designed to answer questions and respond to queries in a text form that sounds more natural and human. For example, if you are looking for the recipe for a caramel cake, the Bing search engine will provide you with a complete recipe when compared to Google, where you just get a list of cooking recipe websites most of which seem to cash in on repetitive keywords with very little to do with the actual information. The former takes away the need to search further, to find the right link that answers your query. The conversational AI response will invariably be the best result. Microsoft’s promise with Bing and the Edge browser will soon be to offer the next chapter in search: more conversational and information that is to the point, making the internet itself more human in the process.
The AI-fused Bing is a departure from how traditional search is done. Google works by crawling billions of Web pages, indexing that content, and then ranking it in order of the most relevant answers, essentially listing out the links to click through. Bing offers something deeper: a single answer based on its own search similar to the way ChatGPT does, this will get prominence over the traditional lists. In a way, the refreshed Bing is a reflection of changing consumer behaviour towards bite-sized content as users’ attention spans get shorter. Users don’t have time on their hands to scroll through zillions of websites to get the right information. When users come to the internet to find a particular solution to a query, they look for snappy responses but in a condensed form, like how a short-form video appears on TikTok, Reels, or YouTube. If someone searches for iPhone 14, why keep that user busy by showing an infinite number of reviews with varied opinions, links to news, pop-up ads of iPhones from online retailers, and whatnot? Why not provide users with information that simplifies the buying process by providing a summary of reviews? This would be a more straightforward way to tell someone what they are looking for on the web.
The direction search is moving in — even Google has announced Bard, a conversation AI assistant for its search — clearly signals a shift in this direction.
AI chatbots such as ChatGPT might be good at answering information searches and making summaries of the information already available on the web, but they could pose a problem for those who are behind the content – news publishers, websites, and blogs. If Bing answers your queries about “How to fix a leaky tap”, then who would come to read an article on a website that has done a detailed how-to on fixing a dripping tap with pictures? This paints a negative picture for news websites that write detailed stories and do in-depth stories on various topics. If the information is available in short summaries via Bing and ChatGPT-like AI bots, then it automatically takes page reviews that news websites thrive on. It might also negatively affect their search ranking and eventually hit advertising revenues in the long run, leaving them with no option but to put a majority of content behind the paywall.
During Tuesday’s press event, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was quick to compare AI to a “Mosaic moment,” which introduced the web to the world. But there are still questions on whether AI chatbots like ChatGPT can replace traditional search. Bing carries a disclaimer warning users to look for sources and do a fact-check next to the results. AI experts have cautioned that these AI chatbots can offer information that is not accurate as seen in the case of ChatGPT. In fact, on Wednesday, after the first results thrown by Bard at Google’s AI live demo turned out to be inaccurate, Alphabet lost over $100 billion in stock value. Yes, reliability is still a problem with AI bots and until that gets solved, they cannot fully replace the tried and tested conventional search.