Bing (Yes, Bing) Just Made Search Interesting Again

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 its 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 capitalizing 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.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, speaking with reporters on Tuesday at what was billed as a landmark event for Microsoft.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

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.

The Rise of OpenAI

The San Francisco company is one of the world’s most ambitious artificial intelligence labs. Here’s a look at some recent developments.

  • ChatGPT: The popularity of the cutting-edge chatbot that kicked off an A.I. arms race has come as something of a shock — even among employees of the company that created it.
  • DALL-E 2: The system lets you create digital images simply by describing what you want to see. But for some, image generators are worrisome.
  • GPT-3: With mind-boggling fluency, the natural-language system can write, argue and code. The implications for the future could be profound.

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 only works on desktop computers using Edge, Microsoft’s web browser, but the company told me it plans to expand to other browsers and devices eventually.)

I tested the new Bing for a few hours on Tuesday afternoon, and it’s a marked improvement over Google. It’s also an improvement over ChatGPT, which, despite its many capabilities, was never designed to be used as a search engine. It doesn’t cite its sources, and it has trouble incorporating up-to-date information or events. So while ChatGPT can write a beautiful poem about baseball or draft a testy email to your landlord, it’s less suited to telling you what happened in Ukraine last week or where to find a decent meal in Albuquerque.

Microsoft has gotten around some of ChatGPT’s limitations by marrying OpenAI’s language capabilities to Bing’s search function, using a proprietary tool it’s calling Prometheus. The technology works, roughly, by extracting search terms from users’ requests, running those queries through Bing’s search index, then using those search results in combination with its own language model to formulate a response. In both Microsoft’s demos and my own testing, Bing did well at a wide variety of search-related tasks, including creating travel itineraries, brainstorming gift ideas and summarizing books and movie plots.

People tried out Bing at the Microsoft event.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Microsoft has also incorporated OpenAI’s technology into Edge, its web browser, as a kind of superpowered writing assistant. Users can now open a panel in Edge, type in a general topic and get an A.I.-generated paragraph, blog post, email or a list of ideas written in one of five tones. (Professional, casual, informational, enthusiastic or funny.) They can paste that text directly into a web browser, a social media app or an email client.

Users can also chat with Edge’s built-in A.I. about any website they’re viewing, asking for summaries or additional information. In one eye-popping demo on Tuesday, a Microsoft executive navigated to The Gap’s website, opened a PDF file with the company’s most recent quarterly financial results and asked Edge to both summarize the key takeaways and create a table comparing the data with the most recent financial results from another clothing company, Lululemon. The A.I. did both, almost instantly.

The new Bing is far from perfect. Like ChatGPT, it’s prone to spouting confident-sounding nonsense, and its answers can be erratic. When I gave it a basic math puzzle — “If a dozen eggs cost $0.24, how many eggs can you buy for a dollar?” — it got the answer wrong. (It said 100; the correct answer is 50.) It also didn’t do well when I asked it for a list of kid-friendly activities happening in my hometown this coming weekend. Among Bing’s suggestions were a Lunar New Year parade (which happened last weekend), a fund-raiser for a local school (which happened two weekends ago) and a “tie-dye Hanukkah celebration” (which happened in mid-December).

There are also legitimate questions about how quickly all of this A.I. technology is being developed and deployed. And, of course, using A.I. language models to answer search queries raises a litany of thorny questions about copyright, attribution and bias. (To name an obvious one: What will happen to all the publishers that rely on Google as a traffic source if no one on Bing needs to click the links to their sites?)

Sam Altman, left, OpenAI’s chief executive, and Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

But fixating on the areas where these tools fall short risks missing what’s so amazing about what they get right. When the new Bing works, it’s not just a better search engine. It’s an entirely new way of interacting with information on the internet, one whose full implications I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Kevin Scott, the chief technology officer of Microsoft, and Sam Altman, the chief executive of OpenAI, said in a joint interview on Tuesday that they expect these issues to get ironed out over time. It’s still early days for this kind of A.I., they said, and it’s too early to predict the downstream consequences of putting this technology in billions of people’s hands.

“With any new technology, you don’t perfectly forecast all of the issues and mitigations,” Mr. Altman said. “But if you run a very tight feedback loop, at the rate things are evolving, I think we can get to very solid products very fast.”

For now, only one thing seems clear: After years of stagnation and stasis, Microsoft and OpenAI have made search interesting again.

After I turn in this column, I’m going to do something I thought I’d never do: I’m switching my desktop computer’s default search engine to Bing. And Google, my default source of information for my entire adult life, is going to have to fight to get me back.

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