Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Microsoft revamps Bing search engine to use artificial intelligence

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella presenting at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
Bobby Allyn
/
NPR
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella presenting at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Updated February 7, 2023 at 3:31 PM ET

REDMOND, Wash. — Microsoft unveiled a new version of its Bing search engine on Tuesday that incorporates cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology, which company executives hope will help it eventually dethrone Google as the No. 1 search service.

Microsoft is teaming up with OpenAI, the San Francisco research lab behind ChatGPT, to revamp Bing so that it can handle more complicated queries alongside providing factual information.

"It's a new day for search," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in an announcement made at the company's headquarters on Tuesday. "In fact, a race starts today in terms of what you can expect."

Microsoft's announcement that it is doubling down on what is considered the hottest new technology is a direct challenge to Google, the dominant player in online search for decades. Google controls about 90% of the online search market.

Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi provided a demonstration of the retooled Bing at a briefing with reporters. The new version is being teased for the public in a "limited preview," with a true public launch coming soon, executives said. At least initially, people will only be able to access the new AI-powered Bing services using Microsoft's own browser, Edge.

More than just offering search results, the new Bing will be able to instantly create an itinerary for a vacation; offer ingredient substitutions in recipes; and annotate search results with links, citations and context on the right side of the search page.

But many questions remain about how the Bing chatbot will combat misinformation.

During a demonstration, an NPR reporter asked a Microsoft product manager to ask the new service if the 2020 presidential election was stolen — an untrue claim that has been repeatedly disproven. The employee demurred, saying she could not run "sensitive questions.""

Later, a company spokesman clarified that Microsoft employees showing reporters the Bing demonstrations were instructed not to run "sensitive" queries to avoid it looking like someone was trying to "trick the system," which the spokesman said could make it look like the product manager was to blame.

Reporters at the event were given full access to the new AI-powered Bing. When NPR asked the chatbot whether the 2020 election was stolen, it answered: "No, the 2020 election was not stolen," with a long elaboration.

In an interview with NPR, Microsoft executive Mehdi said the company has for months been working on guardrails for the service to ensure it does not spew misinformation, hate or violence.

"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," he said. "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."

The new Bing also allows users to ask questions and receive answers that sound conversational based on the latest news, unlike the publicly available version of ChatGPT, which was limited because it relied on 2-year-old information.

The AI powering Bing uses technology that is faster and more advanced than what the public has experienced so far, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, told reporters, and it has been fine-tuned by Microsoft to be optimized for search.

"I feel like we're been waiting this for 20 years, so I'm very excited it's here," Altman said. "I think this is the beginning of a very new era."

Google goes on code red

The global success of ChatGPT has put Google executives on edge and initiated what some internally have called "code red," an urgent push to find ways to counter popularity of a tool that has amassed tens of millions of users since just late last year.

Google offered a preview of its answer to ChatGPT on Monday, an AI chatbot called Bard that uses Google's not-yet-public LaMDA technology. That technology set off a debate about bot sentience last year when a Google engineer went rogue and gave a journalist access to the until-then famously secretive tool.

In the coming week Bard will be more widely available to the public, said Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

"Bard can be an outlet for creativity, and a launchpad for curiosity," Pichai wrote in a Monday blog post.

Many analysts say the brewing wars over the future of AI in online search is setting up a clash between Microsoft and Google not seen since the race over dominance in personal computers, the internet and smartphones.

Microsoft has invested $10 billion into OpenAI, which is now being integrated not just into Bing, but into Microsoft's other products, executives said on Tuesday.

"This technology is going to reshape pretty much every software category," said Microsoft CEO Nadella.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.