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Google Tries to Catch Up to Rivals Like OpenAI

Google is boosting efforts to achieve CEO Sundar Pichai’s goal of being an ‘AI-first company.’/ Anna Moneymaker. “We have long been focused ...

Google is boosting efforts to achieve CEO Sundar Pichai’s goal of being an ‘AI-first company.’/ Anna Moneymaker.
“We have long been focused on developing and deploying AI to improve people’s lives,” a Google spokeswoman said. “We believe that AI is a foundational and transformative technology that is incredibly useful for individuals, businesses, and communities, and as our AI Principles outline, we need to consider the broader societal impacts these innovations can have.”

Microsoft Corp. said this week that it would make a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, the company behind the viral ChatGPT chatbot and image-generation program Dall-E 2. Microsoft declined to comment on financial terms, but people familiar with the deal said the two parties discussed an investment of as much as $10 billion.

Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella said last week that the company plans to infuse all of its products with artificial-intelligence tools such as those developed by OpenAI. Google’s closest competition in online search, Microsoft’s Bing, would be one likely target area, analysts said.

Google has been researching and testing the possibilities of artificial intelligence for years. In 2017, a group of Google researchers published a paper laying out a new AI model called the Transformer that ushered in a new generation of large, powerful programs for processing text, images, and other forms of data.

At a Google conference in 2021, Mr. Pichai demonstrated two conversations with an experimental artificial intelligence program called LaMDA, which stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications. The model responded to questions with complete thoughts from the perspectives of the dwarf planet Pluto and a paper airplane, drawing applause from the live audience.

Screenshot of ChatGPT bot.
OpenAI drew on a $1 billion investment from Microsoft in 2019 to develop a powerful new model, GPT-3, based on the Transformer developed by Google, leading to new applications such as the first version of Dall-E.

In November last year, OpenAI publicly released a demo of a chatbot called ChatGPT. The simple application quickly drew more than one million users, generating creative answers to prompts such as, “Write a movie script of a taco fighting a hot dog on the beach.”

Soon after, Google employees began asking whether the company had missed a chance to attract users. During a companywide meeting in December, Mr. Dean said Google had to move slower than startups because people place a high degree of trust in the company’s products, and current chatbots had issues with accuracy, said people who heard the remarks.

Analysts said Google is still in a strong position to capitalize on public interest in artificial intelligence, which has already been used to improve company products such as Search and Maps.

“I’m pretty sure that there will be at least multiple large model providers, and I think that’s good for the overall ecosystem and industry,” said Reid Hoffman, a venture capitalist and OpenAI board member, at an event this month. Mr. Hoffman said he thinks Google is still figuring out how to balance its work in artificial intelligence and the responsibility it feels toward users.

At times, Google has also struggled to unite overlapping efforts by different artificial intelligence teams within the company, including London-based DeepMind, which it acquired in 2014, said people familiar with the matter.

In 2021, Google ended yearslong efforts by DeepMind to establish a more independent corporate structure, such as potentially moving to a nonprofit structure or spinning off entirely, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Like OpenAI, DeepMind has worked on building computer systems that can closely mimic or even replicate human thought, a concept known as artificial general intelligence. Some of DeepMind’s most notable breakthroughs have focused on the life sciences, including an algorithm called AlphaFold that can be used to predict protein structures.

In December, Google and DeepMind researchers introduced a language model that could produce reliable answers to a limited set of medical questions, while still overall falling short of those typically provided by clinicians. DeepMind Chief Executive Demis Hassabis told Time magazine the company is considering releasing a chatbot called Sparrow to a limited audience this year.