When Ernie Bot was released on March 16, the response was a mix of excitement and disappointment. Many people deemed its performance mediocre and worse than the previously released ChatGPT.
But most people simply weren’t able to see it for themselves. The launch event didn’t feature a live demonstration of the chatbot, and later, to actually try out the bot, Chinese users need to have a Baidu account first and then apply for an Ernie Bot use license that could take as long as three months to clear. Because of this, some people who got access early were selling second-hand Baidu accounts on e-commerce sites, charging anywhere from a few bucks to over $100.
More than a dozen Chinese generative AI chatbots were released after Ernie Bot. They are all pretty similar to their Western counterparts in that they are capable of conversing in text—answering questions, solving math problems (somewhat), writing programming codes, and composing poems. Some of them also allow input and output in other forms, like audio, images, data visualization, or radio signals.
Like Ernie Bot, these services had instituted similar restrictions for user access, making it difficult for the general public in China to experience their products. Some of them were only allowed for business uses.
One of the main reasons Chinese tech companies offered limited general public access was concern that the models could be used to generate politically sensitive information. While the Chinese government has shown it’s extremely capable of censoring social media content, new technologies like generative AI could push the censorship machine to unknown and unpredictable limits. Most current chatbots like those from Baidu and ByteDance have built-in moderation mechanisms that would refuse to answer sensitive questions about Taiwan or Chinese President Xi Jinping, but a general release to China’s 1.4 billion population would almost certainly result in people finding more clever ways to circumvent censors.