The search bot arms race between Google and Microsoft is exploding


The AI arms race between Google and Microsoft is in full force, as both companies trumpet new tech that they claim will transform the way we search the internet.

The companies this week announced new chatbot search engines powered by artificial intelligence — churning up longer contextualized answers in response to queries. On Tuesday, Microsoft held a major event at its Redmond, Wash. headquarters where Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella touted its chatbot search feature, based on tech developed by smaller AI company OpenAI. Google, meanwhile, appeared to attempt to front run the announcement with its own unveiling of its chatbot named “Bard” on Monday — something it demoed at an event in France on Wednesday.

“The AI arms race between Microsoft and Google (and the rest of Big Tech) has begun,” said Dan Ives, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, in a Wednesday note.

The competition between the two tech giants reflects the excitement and hype around technology called generative AI, which uses massive computer programs trained on reams of text and images to build bots that conjure content of their own based on relatively complex questions. Google first unveiled its chatbot LaMDA in 2021, but didn’t make it available to the public. Last year, smaller AI company OpenAI made its chatbot ChatGPT and image generator DALL-E available to the public, spurring a burst of interest in the technology, which in turn pushed Microsoft and Google to rush out their products.

Reporter Danielle Abril tests columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler to see if he can tell the difference between an email written by her or ChatGPT. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Now, the tech giants are trying to bring that same type of experience to search, which has slowly transformed over the past decade to offer more and more sophisticated answers to users. But experts caution that widespread public availability of these types of AI — which harbor biases formed from the information they’re trained on and have been shown to consistently make factual errors and invent information — opens a potential Pandora’s box.

AI can now create images out of thin air. See how it works.

Microsoft is already rolling out its tool — available only on its Edge browser — to select users. The tech is based on smaller AI company OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which Microsoft signed a multibillion dollar deal with recently. Google said its Bard search tool powered by LaMDA would be available in the “coming weeks.”

Microsoft, which has a tiny sliver of the search market with its engine Bing and would require significant gains to catch up, still seemed to have impressed investors, as Google’s stock price dropped nearly 8 percent Wednesday.

Google’s announcement did not include an interactive demonstration like Microsoft’s did. Its chatbot also made a mistake in the example the company showed off in its initial blog post — incorrectly saying that the James Webb telescope was the first to take a picture of an exoplanet, when really it was a different telescope.

Chatbots routinely make factual mistakes or mix incorrect information into their answers, a problem which skeptics of the technology say suggest it is clearly not ready to be incorporated into search engines.

A Google search event held in France Wednesday morning did not provide substantial new information about the chatbot plans — potentially giving rise to more unease among investors.

Trying Microsoft’s new AI chatbot search engine, some answers are uh-oh

Google and Microsoft have both used AI in their search engines for years to help parse peoples’ queries, decide which content is best for which questions and offer other services like translation. But the chatbots are the first case of the companies using generative AI.

Both search engines moved away from the “ten blue links” model of simply providing links to other websites years ago, and now often provide direct answers for questions about the weather, sports scores and the ages of famous people. But some AI entrepreneurs believe generative AI will create a world where linking back to original source material becomes obsolete, with chabots like ChatGPT or Bard simply answering peoples’ questions directly based on the knowledge they’ve gained from hoovering up the internet’s collective knowledge.

That is prompting concerns from internet publishers that the new systems will simply steal their work and present it as their own, without sending any traffic back to the original content creators. Google’s example did not show it citing sources, while Microsoft’s did.

But the tech is still very early, and its likely Google will cite sources and link back to original authors when its bot does officially debut, said Ross Hudgens, a search engine optimization expert and chief executive of Siege Media, a content marketing company. The company’s business model of getting users to click on links to ads is too important to jeopardize, he said.

“Google needs to maintain the experience of sending people to outside websites,” he said.