Welcome to the AI wars. Not the kind we imagined where Skynet launched a surprise missile attack on its makers, but one in which companies are all vying to be the dominant source of your artificial intelligence connection. To put this powerful technology at your and everyone else’s fingertips. And at the tip of this spear are, somewhat unexpectedly, Microsoft and Bing.
Here’s the crazy thing, though. I’ve seen and tried Microsoft’s new Bing search engine and its powerful chatbot, which Microsoft unveiled in a Redmond, Washington, event on Tuesday, and I think Microsoft may have just won the first skirmish of this crucial tech dominance battle. This could improbably be Bing’s moment. And by “moment,” I mean when you finally start realizing or caring that Microsoft has had a search engine of its own for well over a decade.
You might want to start using Bing. At least as soon as you can get access to the first iteration of Bing and its new chatbot, which I luckily have access to right now.
New look, new AI powers
I know, Microsoft’s announcement of a new Chatbot-enhanced search engine comes just 24 hours after Google unveiled its ChatGPT rival Bard and plans to reinvent its own much more popular search engine. But here’s the difference. Google’s Bard is coming soon. The new Bing is here now, and it works as you would want and expect an “Ask me anything” search engine to work.
In some ways, the new Bing looks a lot like the old Bing, but it’s not. The desktop version, which is available now and will be followed by a mobile one, neither hides nor forces AI chat on you.
Obviously, the interface looks different. There’s a new “Chat” option in the menu, and you can even slide between the main search screen and one devoted entirely to the chatbot. Back on the search screen, the query box is much larger, accommodating up to 1,000 characters for pretty much any natural language question you can cook up.
You can – and I did – type in virtually anything you want into that space. Microsoft says most people type on average 2.4 words in a search box, but that’s operating within the parameters and confines of a typical search engine. To be clear, Microsoft is not reinventing the wheel here. Most people are already typing lengthy queries into Google Search and getting decent keyword-based results. However, the new Bing takes this thought a step further.
Ask it anything
As we were typing in our various queries, which included a vanity search on moi and longer ones like asking about baking blueberry muffins for someone who’s allergic to gluten and milk, Bing was collecting the standard fare like Wikipedia results on me and muffin recipes from various foodie sites. If you were to look at only the center of the screen, you could assume nothing has changed, but populating somewhat more slowly on the right is a new box full of more conversational results from Bing’s chatbot.
The results are like its cousin ChatGPT but also not. Microsoft basically took OpenAI’s work on ChatGPT and, with OpenAI’s help, iterated on it, put the formidable power of Azure Cloud Services behind it, and combined it with Bing’s knowledge graph to create what it’s calling the Prometheus Model.
Going deeper and further
In each case, the chat result expanded on the results in more detail, and because it’s conversational, that first result can be just the beginning of a longer conversation. On my vanity search, we got the details about my career but then asked the chatbot if I’d ever won any awards. It found the ones I did and the ones where I was runner-up (that’s for that reminder, new Bing).
At the bottom of that right-hand chat box result is a “Let’s Chat” button that lets you deepen the query with additional questions.
On my baking question, I got details specifically about how to find ingredients that wouldn’t bother my allergic friend. What’s notable about some, but not all, of these results is how, unlike ChatGPT, every reference is cited in place. I only had to float over one to see the source or click through to visit the origin page.
In the chat screen, every result returns additional guiding questions to continue your search. When I launched a search about working out my quads without hurting my back (I lied and told Bing I injured it last summer), Bing responded by telling me how sorry it was that I hurt my back, adding “I hope you are feeling better now. 😊 Building your quads, or quadriceps femoris, can be challenging if you have back pain, but there are some exercises that can help you without hurting your back…” then suggested a long list of well-cited exercise options. The list was extensive and full of citations.
It’s early days
We have already seen some results, though, that don’t include a reference, like one a colleague did on exercise options that was link free despite recommending a few different workout options. The concern here would be that the chatbot didn’t even account for the possibility that the person searching can’t handle those kinds of activities.
Still, it’s early days for the new Bing and the whole point of AIs is that they learn (or can be trained), and get better and better. What’s more, the system does have a mechanism for feedback so you can call out inaccurate responses. You do this by selecting dislike, but you can get more granular by adding some detail and a screenshot in a feedback window. I would like to see the ability to select the exact offending text, right-click, and select, “this is inaccurate.” Maybe in a future version.
Even so, the beauty of what Microsoft has built here is the first fully-integrated Search AI. Not only is it elegant and useful (in the Microsoft Edge integration you can ask Bing Chat to summarize a page for you) but, as is often the case with the best new AI tools, it’s also fun.
It’s also doing what we probably always wanted search to do, guiding us to the best result. Google has arguably the most powerful and comprehensive knowledge graph, but an initial search won’t necessarily bring back the results you want. So you recast your search. It’s a series of stops and starts until you get to the best result. With the addition of Bing Chat, search becomes a funnel where additional context and questions can narrow the focus until you have the best result.
Granted there’s concern about abuse, but because Microsoft built this on top of the already strong foundation of its often ignored search engine – the chat inherits Bing’s gifts and ability to mitigate bad, old, false, and harmful information.
I’m certain it won’t be foolproof because AI rarely is. Still, ChatGPT has been such a sensation not only because it’s so powerful and easy to use, but because it’s mostly managed to avoid surfacing the biases and poor judgment that’s plagued so many of the previous chatbots.
Put another way, Microsoft combined a seasoned search engine with what might arguably be considered the best-in-class consumer AI, improved on both of them, and built something brand new that anyone can use without any training at all.
And they’ve done it before Google.
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