MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google on Wednesday disclosed plans to infuse its dominant search engine with more advanced artificial-intelligence technology, a drive that’s in response to one of the biggest threats to its long-established position as the internet’s main gateway.
The gradual shift in how Google’s search engine runs is rolling out three months after Microsoft’s Bing search engine started to tap into technology similar to that which powers the artificially intelligent chatbot ChatGPT, which has created one of Silicon Valley’s biggest buzzes since Apple released the first iPhone 16 years ago.
Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc., already has been testing its own conversational chatbot called Bard. That product, powered by technology called generative AI that also fuels ChatGPT, has only been available to people accepted from a waitlist. But Google announced Wednesday that Bard will be available to all comers in more than 180 countries and more languages beyond English.
Bard’s multilingual expansion will begin with Japanese and Korean before adding about 40 more languages.
Now Google is ready to test the AI waters with its search engine, which has been synonymous with finding things on the internet for the past 20 years and serves as the pillar of a digital advertising empire that generated more than $220 billion in revenue last year.
“We are at an exciting inflection point,” Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai told a packed developers conference in a speech peppered with one AI reference after another. “We are reimagining all our products, including search.”
More AI technology will be coming to Google’s Gmail with a “Help Me Write” option that will produce lengthy replies to emails in seconds, and a tool for photos called “Magic Editor” that will automatically doctor pictures.
The AI shift will start cautiously, with Google’s search engine.
The deliberate approach is a reflection of the balance that Google has to strike in order to maintain its reputation as a reliable provider of search results while still staying on the leading edge. Artificial intelligence, however, could undermine this mantle by fabricating authoritative-sounding information.
The tendency to produce deceptively convincing answers to questions — a phenomenon euphemistically described as “hallucinations” — has already been cropping up during the early testing of Bard, which like ChatGPT, relies on still-evolving generative AI technology.
Google will take its next AI steps through a newly formed search lab where people in the U.S. can join a waitlist to test how generative AI will be incorporated in search results. These tests include links to websites that provide more information on the topic. It may take several weeks before Google starts sending invitations to those accepted from the waitlist to test the AI-injected search engine.
The AI will clearly be labelled as an experiment in technology, and Google promises that the AI summaries generated by AI will sound factual rather than conversational. This is different from Bard or ChatGPT which have been programmed to portray more human personas. Google is building in guardrails that will prevent the AI baked into the search engine from responding to sensitive questions about health — such as, “Should I give Tylenol to a 3-year-old?” — and finance matters. In those instances, Google will continue to steer people to authoritative websites.
Google isn’t predicting how long it will be before its search engine will include generative AI results for all comers. The Mountain View, California, company has been under intensifying pressure to demonstrate how its search engine will maintain its leadership since Microsoft began to load AI into Bing, which remains a distant second to Google.
The potential threat caused Alphabet Inc.’s stock to plummet initially, but it recently rebounded to its previous level when Bing’s AI plans were announced with great fanfare. More recently, The New York Times reported Samsung is considering dropping Google as the default search engine on its widely used smartphones, raising the specter that Apple might adopt a similar tactic with the iPhone unless Google can show its search engine can evolve with what appears to be a forthcoming AI-driven revolution.
As Google begins to integrate AI into its search engine it is working to make Bard even smarter. It will do this by connecting it with the latest generation of data known as “large language models” or LLM. The LLM that Bard relies on is dubbed Pathways Language Model, or PaLM. The AI in Google’s search engine will draw upon the next-generation PaLM2 and another technology known as a Multitask Unified Model, or MUM.
Although people will have to wait to see how Google’s search engine will deploy generative AI to find answers, a new tool will be immediately available. Google will add a “Perspectives’ filter that will concentrate on what users are saying about any topic entered in the search engine. The new feature will be placed along existing search filters for news, images and video.
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