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ChatGPT and the impact on search engines

January 2023
 by Tom Whitley

ChatGPT and the impact on search engines

January 2023
 By Tom Whitley

Launched by OpenAI at the beginning of December 2022, the arrival of ChatGPT has certainly grabbed the attention of the internet. Finally, an AI tool powerful enough to produce genuinely human-like speech patterns and answers to questions, made freely available for anyone to use. You will likely have seen numerous examples of the tool producing detailed answers, in a variety of forms, to even the most obscure questions.

But first of all, what is ChatGPT? Well, who better to ask than the tool itself? “I am an artificial intelligence designed to assist with a wide range of tasks and answer questions to the best of my ability. I was trained using a process called machine learning, which involves feeding a computer large amounts of data and using that data to improve the performance of certain tasks. I am able to understand and generate human-like text, and I can use that ability to help answer questions, provide information, and engage in conversation. I do not have my own thoughts or feelings, but I am programmed to try to understand and respond to the thoughts and feelings of the people I interact with.”

This is, unsurprisingly, an accurate and helpful response. There are limitations to the technology (which you can also ask it about), including the fact that its knowledge currently only goes as far as the end of 2021, so it can’t answer current questions. There have also been issues with it generating contentious responses, and the plausibility and confidence with which it provides answers is an issue when the answer is simply wrong. However, it has set a new benchmark for developing a human-like speech pattern in text: this is a far departure from the awkward, slow and robotic interactions you might have with an AI chatbot provided by your bank or energy provider today.

ChatGPT and the potential to disrupt search

The intrigue in all of this is the impact that it could have on traditional search engines. Through AI, ChatGPT is potentially able to do a far better job of understanding a query and the subtleties of the intent behind it, compared to something like Google. The call and response format when interacting with ChatGPT also allows more refined follow-ups: the user can challenge the answer provided or request elaboration, and ChatGPT can acknowledge a mistake or improve its answer.

Google’s dominance of the search engine market is very well-entrenched. The search engine responds to questions or prompts with links, including advertising links which serve to power its revenue. However, it is easy to imagine how ChatGPT could disrupt this. Instead of encouraging users to click on links to new websites, ChatGPT can simply provide succinct answers or clear explanations itself. This could completely change the way users interact with search engines – indeed, the whole ecosystem surrounding the search engine revenue model, and search engine optimisation, could be turned on its head. The potential for disruption is so great that, according to a New York Times article, senior figures at Google’s parent company Alphabet have declared a ‘code red’ to better understand the potential impact on Google and the wider search engine industry.

The race to adopt the new technology

Recent reports have suggested that Microsoft, a significant investor in OpenAI, plans to launch a version of its Bing search engine using the AI behind ChatGPT as early as this spring. Just how this integration will work is not yet clear – not least because ChatGPT’s knowledge base currently stops at the end of 2021 – but its ability to provide full answers in the style of human speech patterns could make the user experience friendlier than that of Google. In the future, if the technology can be proved viable and kept up-to-date, questions posed through Bing could be answered in compact sentences rather than a list of links that require further exploration (and are positioned according to advertisers’ demands).

Google has its own sophisticated AI capable of natural language processing in LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), which made headlines in June 2022 when a Google engineer claimed it was sentient. However, Google is naturally hesitant to integrate the technology into its search engine: such an overhaul would have an impact on advertising revenue, and Google has far more reputational risk at stake than smaller players. ChatGPT has already been used for nefarious means, including to write malware and facilitate cyber attacks, but these are risks that a start-up can navigate, given that reputational damage is not as critical to them. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has confirmed as much, noting that Google is acting “more conservatively than a small start-up” because of the “reputational risk” posed by the technology.

What lies ahead for ChatGPT and search?

While internet search engines have evolved since Google’s launch in 1998, with results becoming more personalised and algorithms and advertising models more sophisticated, their overall functionality has changed surprisingly little in 25 years. The arrival of ChatGPT could herald one of the most significant moments in the evolution of internet search engines, and it will be intriguing to see both how the technology is developed and integrated over the coming months, and how tech giants and start-ups respond.

I will leave the final words to ChatGPT, in response to the query, “How are you going to change the search engine landscape?”:

“As an AI language model, I don’t have the ability to change the search engine landscape on my own. However, my creators at OpenAI may be working on ways to integrate my capabilities into search engines to improve the search experience for users. This could include providing more accurate and relevant results, as well as being able to understand and respond to natural language queries in a more human-like way. But this is just a speculation and not confirmed by OpenAI.”

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