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Bard’s first public mistake cost Google $100 billion

Alphabet is playing catch up with Microsoft in the AI chatbot field, but Google’s parent company made a costly blunder in its haste.

A Google ad shared on Twitter on Feb. 6 touting its ChatGPT rival Bard showed the chatbot giving an incorrect answer. In the promotional video, the AI tool is asked “What new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST] can I tell my 9 year old about?” In its response, Bard answers that JWST took the “very first pictures” of an exoplanet outside our solar system. Yet the first image of an exoplanet was taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in 2004, according to NASA.

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The timing of the error, which was spotted by astrophysicist Grant Tremblay and then reported by Reuters and the New Scientist, couldn’t have been worse, spoiling a week that was meant to highlight Google’s answer to Microsoft’s AI advances.

Bard versus Bing

On Monday (Feb. 6), Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company would open Bard—its ChatGPT rival powered by its Language Model for Dialogue Applications (or LaMDA)—“to trusted testers,” with the intention of releasing to the general public shortly afterwards. Google also said it would integrate the chatbot in its search engine. On Wednesday (Feb. 8), the company was due to host a launch event for the experimental chatbot and more, live-streamed from Paris.

Microsoft stole the thunder with a surprise event on Feb. 7 where it unveiled a new version of its search engine Bing developed with OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, Dall-E, and more. The revamped Bing is “running on a new next-generation large language model. One that is much more powerful than ChatGPT and that is customized specifically for search,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president and consumer chief marketing officer, announced at the event.

Reports of Bard’s error clouded Google’s event, which itself failed to match Microsoft’s demonstration. “[I]it felt like a last-minute addition that was shoehorned into the pre-planned event,” Mashable tech reporter Cecily Mauran, who was at the event, wrote. “Attendees expecting a worthy rebuttal to Microsoft’s Bing announcement were left underwhelmed.”

The company’s stock was hit hard. Alphabet’s stock fell by 9% by market close yesterday (Feb. 8), shaving $100 billion off the giant’s market cap. Microsoft’s share price instead rose 3%.

Charted: Alphabet’s stock plunges after Bard debacle


Google’s rush to release an AI chatbot

Once a frontrunner in all things AI, Google got leapfrogged by OpenAI in recent years.

Seeing the growing popularity of ChatGPT, which launched in November, Google internally declared launching its own chatbot a “code red” project. The fact that the Satya Nadella-led firm pumped in billions more into OpenAI in the past year only built more pressure on Sundar Pichai’s teams.

“As a result of ChatGPT, the LaMDA team has been asked to prioritize working on a response to ChatGPT,” one internal memo viewed by CNBC last month said. “In the short term, it takes precedence over other projects,” the email continued, warning that some employees stop attending certain unrelated meetings.

Errors like the one in the Bard ad are far from uncommon and plague several similar models. But it wasn’t a good look that it went unchecked. In the mad rush to get ahead, Google can’t ignore Bard’s shortcomings.

Quotable: What Google has to say about the Bard blunder

“This highlights the importance of a rigorous testing process, something that we’re kicking off this week with our Trusted Tester program. We’ll combine external feedback with our own internal testing to make sure Bard’s responses meet a high bar for quality, safety and groundedness in real-world information.” Google spokesperson

An AI “dance of giants” is underway

ChatGPT has reached 100 million users as of Feb. 1. ChatGPT had to earn those users and it did so rapidly. While impressive, Google has a way to scale and breach 1 billion users with far less effort. Its search already crossed the 1 billion mark years ago. “Unlike ChatGPT, Google doesn’t need to gain users. It just needs to roll out to its existing search box,” Jim Fan, an AI research scientist at Nvidia, tweeted.

Either way, if and when Bard is fully rolled out, together with ChatGPT, over 1.1 billion users will be able to access these experimental chatbots, making it, in Fan’s words, “a dance of giants.”

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