News In Context

A Pivotal Moment For Search

If the hyperbole from Microsoft and Google is to be believed search will never be the same. Both companies held events this week to highlight how generative AI will change the way people look for things on the Internet.

Microsoft released a new version of its search engine Bing powered by artificial intelligence software from OpenAI, the maker of the popular chatbot ChatGPT.  It was billed as a landmark event — the company’s “iPhone moment.”

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 like “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,” explained a reporter from The New York Times who tested the technology.”

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.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, explained The New York Times.

The search results were so impressive that the reporter ended his column by saying “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.

Google may dominate search now but “a new race is starting with a completely new platform technology. I’m excited for users to have a choice finally,”  Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella told The Wall Street Journal in an interview.

Google is not standing still. It held its own event in Paris this week to give a preview of its GPT-style chatbot Bard. Google’s search boss, Prabhakar Raghavan , showed slides with new examples of Bard’s capabilities during a brief presentation. One slide showed how Bard can be used to display the pros and cons of buying an electric car, for example, and to plan a trip in Northern California.

Meanwhile China’s Baidu said on Tuesday it would complete internal testing of a ChatGPT-style project called “Ernie Bot” in March.

Interest in generative artificial intelligence is gathering steam but in their hurry to market companies are unleashing technology that gives plausible but wrong answers. 

Just ask Google. It lost $100 billion in market value on Wednesday after Reuters revealed that Bard shared inaccurate information in a promotional video. In the advertisement, Bard is given the prompt: “What new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) can I tell my 9-year old about?” Bard responds with a number of answers, including one suggesting the JWST was used to take the very first pictures of a planet outside the Earth’s solar system, or exoplanets. The first pictures of exoplanets were, however, taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in 2004, as confirmed by NASA.

Microsoft’s new product fared no better. The New York Times reporter acknowledged that during Microsoft’s product demo, the new Bing gave an answer to a math problem that was way off mark. The reporter shrugged it off saying that “fixating on the areas where these tools fall short risks missing what’s so amazing about what they get right.”.

In a blog posting, scientist Gary Marcus, author of Rebooting AI, questions that logic. “One might well have said the same in response to people (like me) who expressed concerns about the development of driverless cars in 2016. Seven years and roughly $100 billion later, those pesky errors haven’t gone away,” writes Marcus. “And it’s not just that AI has a fairly spotty track record for taking demos into reliable products; and it’s not just that hallucinatory web search could be dangerous if left to run amok in domains like medicine, it’s that the promises themselves are problematic, when examined from a scientific perspective.”

Scaling neural network model “has made their faux writing more and more authoritative-sounding, but not more and more truthful,” he says.“Hallucinations are in their silicon blood, a byproduct of the way they compress their inputs, losing track of factual relations in the process.”.

Experts disagree on how serious the confabulation problem is, notes the Financial Times in an article entitled “Why Chatbots Are Bound To Spout Bullshit.” Some believe ChatGPT has made remarkable progress in a very short space of time and that is possible or even likely the next generation, in a year or two, will not suffer from the problem, notes the FT article.

In his blog posting Marcus says he believes the problems will eventually be ironed out but there is no telling how long it will take for that to happen. “If they don’t get ironed out soon —and they might not– people might quickly tire of chat-based search, in which BS and truth are so hard to discriminate, and eventually find themselves returning to do their searches the old-fashioned, early 21st century way, awe or not.,” he says.



European Parliament Passes Plans For A Digital Identity Network

Members of the European Parliament’s (MEPs) Industry, Research and Energy Committee have given their support to a new digital identity framework, eID, by 55 votes to 8, reports Finextra.  The Framework was proposed in June 2021, and would create an interoperable, EU-wide scheme, allowing European citizens to use the all-in-one gateway to access public services. Users will be able to identify and authenticate themselves online via a European digital identity wallet without having to go through commercial providers. Amendments were also proposed by the MEPs including making the wallet a tool that can also read and verify electronic documents, and allowing for peer-to-peer interactions. They also proposed measures to strengthen privacy and cybersecurity.


Sunrun Teams With Startup To Operate Virtual Power Plants in The U.S.

U.S. residential solar company Sunrun has teamed up with startup Lunar Energy to operate virtual power plants (VPPs) of home solar and storage systems, a step toward transforming its vast customer network into a resource for power grids. Lunar, which is backed by Sunrun and Korean battery maker SK Group  is already operating 12 such systems for the California-based solar company from New England to Hawaii. Sunrun has been pursuing VPPs as a means of leveraging the value of its customers’ 48,000 home battery systems. VPPs can be called on to supply power when grid supplies are stretched or store it when there is more solar and wind power than needed, reducing the need for fossil-fueled centralized power plants.Lunar’s software, called Gridshare, is capable of operating a fleet of batteries and other smart devices from various manufacturers. It determines at the device level if batteries should feed electricity to the grid, charge from solar energy or discharge power into a household.


Czech Startup Makes Cultivated Meat With Microalgae

Czech startup Mewery announced  it has created the world’s first cultivated meat prototype using microalgae. The company says it used a hybrid culture medium with microalgae extracts to create cultivated meat consisting of 75% pork and 25% microalgae cells.The company says there are several benefits to using microalgaue, including eliminating Fetal Bovine Serum as a cultivating medium. Mewery says its process also lowers costs and provides additional nutritional benefits, including additional vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, fiber, and essential fatty acids. The company also says its cultivated meat is one hundred percent cellular, contrasting with many prototypes that rely on soy or pea proteins.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.