Five Chinese technology companies including Baidu and SenseTime launched artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots to the public on Thursday after receiving government approval, as Beijing pushes to expand use of such products amid competition with the United States.

Baidu, China’s leading online search provider, said in a statement that its ChatGPT-like chatbot Ernie Bot is now fully available to the public. Its chatbot, SenseChat, is also now “fully available to all users,” a SenseTime spokesperson told Reuters by email.

Three AI startups, Baichuan Intelligent, Zhipu Intelligent and MiniMax, announced similar public launches on Thursday.

Shares in Baidu and SenseTime rose in Hong Kong trade, rising 2.1 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, as the broader market fell 0.55 percent.

Unlike other countries, China requires companies to submit safety assessments and obtain a license before releasing mass-market AI products.

Authorities have recently stepped up efforts to support companies developing artificial intelligence as artificial intelligence technology has increasingly become a focus of competition with the United States.

Chinese media reported that a total of 11 companies had received government approval, including TikTok parent ByteDance and Tencent Holdings. Neither company immediately responded to a request for comment on its artificial intelligence plans.

Baidu CEO Robin Li said on Thursday that by using Ernie Bot extensively, Baidu will “gather a lot of valuable real-world human feedback” to further improve the chatbot.

Baidu also plans to release a series of “AI-native apps,” the company said.

first mover advantage

As of this week, it was unclear whether Alibaba had been approved. But an Alibaba Cloud spokesman told Reuters the company had completed the filing of its artificial intelligence model “Unified Thousand Questions”, which is awaiting an official release.

The company expects regulators to announce the list of approved companies in the coming week, the person added.

Being the first to list in China is considered crucial for China’s highly competitive internet industry. Following the announcement, Baidu’s Ernie Bot was ranked No. 1 in the free apps category of China’s Apple App Store on Thursday.

“I think those companies that get approval have a first-mover advantage and can adjust their products faster than competitors,” said Morningstar analyst Kai Wang.

Microsoft-backed ChatGPT maker OpenAI is expected to generate more than $1 billion (nearly Rs 8,270 crore) in revenue in the next 12 months, technology publication The Information reported on Tuesday.

The approvals are widely expected to come after China issued a set of interim rules aimed at regulating public-generated artificial intelligence products, which took effect on Aug. 15.

Previously, companies were only allowed to conduct small-scale public testing of AI products, but under the new rules, companies will expand the scope of their AI product testing by enabling more functions and engaging in more marketing. Products targeting businesses do not require prior government approval.

Shawn Yang, an analyst at Blue Lotus Capital Advisors, said government approval of artificial intelligence products could trigger industry consolidation.

“A lot of people are pouring into the big language model business,” he said, “but the industry is likely to consolidate very quickly. Only those with data and technical capabilities will be able to drive development.”

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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