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Microsoft and Google enlist artificial intelligence to heat up search rivalry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As LeBron sets a new record for humans, tech companies are seeking the record for online search. Microsoft yesterday announced a new version of its search engine, Bing, that is powered by artificial intelligence. And Google says it's planning its own AI-powered search to rival Microsoft's. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn has been having a chance to try out some of this new technology. He's on the line. Bobby, hi.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly is Microsoft doing?

ALLYN: The first thing they're doing, Steve, is mounting a massive challenge to Google's core business. As we all know, if we want to know something online, we Google. Microsoft has its own search engine, Bing. But it's tiny compared to Google. And Microsoft has been waiting in Redmond, Wash., where I am now, for an opportunity to cut into Google's dominance. And they think they found it with artificial intelligence. So they teamed up with San Francisco research lab Open AI. They're the ones behind ChatGPT. You know, it's that tool that generates AI "Seinfeld" scenes, cover letters and has sent teachers into a frenzy over AI plagiarism. Microsoft has partnered with them to launch the first-ever major search engine using this cutting-edge AI technology.

INSKEEP: OK. I get what artificial intelligence can do in terms of making up statements, words, dialogue. But what difference would it make if I'm doing a search?

ALLYN: So I sat down with Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi. And I asked him that very question, Steve. And he put it this way - if you want to know how long the DMV is open because you need to renew your driver's license, Google it, or if you're unusual, go to Bing and you find out your answer. If you want to know the stock price, you want to know what the weather is, OK, fine. Type it into a search. You get it. But if you want to know something a little bit more complex and specific - like, I'm about to buy a couch that's a very specific size. And I have a car. And I'm wondering if this specific couch will fit in the back of my car. Can you Google that? Not really. So this new, AI-powered search is able to come up with an answer and almost instantaneously tells you whether you can put that couch in your car or not. Here's Mehdi.

YUSUF MEHDI: Search hasn't changed in two decades, pretty much. It's the same thing that we all know, blue links on a page, algorithmic approach. Today starts a new race, with AI at the core. And the idea here is that we can move from just search to search plus answers.

ALLYN: And I tried to find some of those answers myself. I was one of the about a hundred reporters who are able to preview this new AI-powered Bing. And I put in all sorts of queries, including whether a couch, a very specific one, can fit in a very specific car. And sometimes the answers seemed to be pretty precise. Other times, it was kind of confusing. So it's trying to move in that direction, but it definitely needs some work.

INSKEEP: Well, how is Microsoft making sure this doesn't go wrong?

ALLYN: You know, it's a pretty complex answer to this question because, you know, what this tool is using as its core data is data on the internet, right? And as we know, data on the internet is full of toxicity, is full of misinformation. So what are they doing? What kind of guardrails have they mounted to make sure that a lot of that stuff isn't replicated and amplified in some of these answers? And so I asked Mehdi, you know, what are the sort of guardrails you have in place to make sure Microsoft isn't itself amplifying some of the most toxic stuff on the internet? And here's what he told me.

MEHDI: Is this hate speech? Is this violence? Is this self-harm? If it is, we catch it. And then we don't even let it go into the model. So we've done a lot of work on the safety side. So an important part of today is, now we can go to market and try it with real testers, because you can't solve these problems in the lab. You have to get out and see it in the real world.

ALLYN: Right, see it in the real world. But, you know, this new Bing has a pretty small real world, Steve. I mean, the select group of researchers, journalists, academics and others who are able to use it is very small. But Microsoft says many millions will be able to try it out in the coming weeks.

INSKEEP: Well, how's Google responding?

ALLYN: So news of Microsoft debuting this new AI tool definitely has put Google in crisis mode. A team inside of Google in Mountain View under the banner of code red has been tasked with coming up with ways to sort of counter ChatGPT-like tools, like the one that Microsoft is now unveiling. And Google said earlier this week that it has its own tool called Bard that will use AI technology in Google results eventually, similar to what Microsoft is doing, of course. But they are not ready to release that just yet.

INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thanks so much. Happy searching.

ALLYN: You, too. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.