REDMOND, Wash. — In a major escalation of the AI arms race, Microsoft said Tuesday that it would “reimagine” its Bing search engine — potentially transforming search by creating a new way for consumers to receive more direct, more comprehensive answers written in response to their queries.
The new version of Bing is designed to allow users to type queries in conversational language and receive traditional search results as well as answers to questions on the same page. It will use a new “generation” of an artificial intelligence model debuted by OpenAI, the company that released popular chat bot ChatGPT.
“We felt like this is a fundamental rethink,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in an interview Tuesday during an event at the company’s headquarters here. “It does, in fact, remind me, even in the search category, of the transition from Alta Vista to Google. It does feel like that moment has arrived back in search. And we saw it early and we decided to bet on it all.”
The underlying technology that powers the new Bing will be more powerful than the core of ChatGPT, Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi said at the event. Bing will have a “search” function and a “chat” function built into its homepage. Nadella added that it will get rid of the need for people to use stilted search terms and instead type as one would speak normally.
Already there is an artificial intelligence arms race between the tech giants, which was reignited by the recent arrival of ChatGPT — an AI system that can answer questions and generate humanlike text, such as marketing copy or student essays. It became an instant hit with people even outside the tech industry.
It’s a splashy move for Microsoft, which has for years remained a stalwart of business software and cloud computing, but hasn’t dominated in consumer-facing products such as social media. The company made a major investment in ChatGPT’s developer last month and had previously incorporated its technology into other Microsoft services, such as workplace chat service Teams.
Still, Microsoft’s move could prove a Pandora’s box. The new search functionality will make this type of AI more accessible to the public before potential harms have been fully explored. Changes to search results will also probably have a radical impact on the ecosystem of websites and ads built around the established mode of searching for information. And it could reignite debates regarding copyright, plagiarism and fair use, since this type of AI has been shown to generate responses that are an exact copy of the text in its training data.
Microsoft will also incorporate the AI function into its web browser, Edge, so that it can be used to pull information and answer questions while users browse different webpages. The new version of Bing has example queries online now. A select group of people will get access to the full version starting Tuesday.
According to Microsoft, users of the remodeled search engine will be able to ask questions in a more natural way. And when it gives answers, alongside the traditional list of results is a box that tries to answer questions in a conversational way. Users can also ask follow-up questions to refine the answer — or even ask it to do something creative with the information, such as turning it into a poem.
Nadella acknowledged that Microsoft has long lagged behind Google in online search, calling the fellow tech giant “the 800-pound gorilla and then some.”
“But, look, in technology at least you get to contest it each time when there’s a real paradigm shift,” he said.
ChatGPT burst into public consciousness at the end of November and has already dazzled millions. Early adopters have used the text tool to write essays and professional emails, explain physics and spin up movie scripts, typing in random prompts to test the limits of its abilities.
The AI system is able to interpret a user’s question and generate humanlike responses — language capabilities that it developed by ingesting vast amounts of text scraped from the internet and finding patterns between words. The system’s developers, the San Francisco-based research lab OpenAI, built the chatbot by fine-tuning one of its older models, called GPT-3.5. Using feedback from human contractors, OpenAI finessed ChatGPT so that responses were more accurate, were less offensive and sounded more natural. Still, users found that ChatGPT sometimes confidently delivers inaccurate answers, spouts nonsense, repeats harmful racial bias and can be manipulated to violate its own safety rules.
Microsoft said it spent significant resources trying to make the model safer, including working with OpenAI technology as an adversarial user to try to find potential problems in the system, as well as training the AI model to police itself by rooting out biases, in part by teaching the system to recognize offensive content and, therefore, ideally avoid it.
It won’t be perfect from the get-go, and it needs to be in the wild to get better, Nadella said.
“You can’t build these products in the lab,” Nadella said. “You have to have AI learn human preferences and norms of society and laws that we pass and get better at it.”
Both ChatGPT and GPT-3.5 are known as “large language models” for the massive amount of data they require. These models are part of a new wave of AI, including text-to-image generators like DALL-E 2 that allow users to interact with the system using conversational English — no technical skills necessary. All have raised similar safety issues around misinformation and racial and gender bias.
Microsoft’s reinvented Bing is powered using a new large language model developed with OpenAI, which the companies then tuned specifically for search.
The release and viral popularity of ChatGPT has escalated an AI competition that had already been underway for years — pushing Google, Meta and smaller companies to release details of their own AI systems. Artificial intelligence has become the primary innovation tech companies are name-checking in their earnings reports early this year, seeking to assure investors that they, too, are competitive in the race.
Geoffrey A. Fowler contributed to this report.