Around a year ago, I wrote a column about users’ growing frustration with Google Search, as automated summaries, sponsored content, and S.E.O.-tailored spam increasingly crowded out the kinds of useful Web site results that Googling was supposed to produce. Google’s search algorithm wasn’t directing us to the information that we wanted to find (for instance, in my case at the time, the elusive perfect toaster) so much as bombarding us with the half-baked recommendations of content mills. Yet Google Search has maintained its dominance partly out of habit and partly because no competing service has offered a viable alternative—until now. On February 7th, Microsoft began a beta launch of a version of its search engine, Bing, in the form of an A.I. chatbot, powered by GPT-4, the latest iteration of OpenAI’s large-language model ChatGPT. Instead of directing users to external sites, the new Bing can simply generate its own answers to any query. Google considers the tool to be an existential threat to its core business, for good reason. At the end of last year, the Times reported that the company had declared a “code red.” Microsoft’s vice-president of design Liz Danzico, who helped to develop Bing A.I.’s interface, told me recently, “We’re in a post-search experience.”
Bing A.I., which I’ve had the chance to test-drive in recent weeks, is essentially ChatGPT hooked up to Microsoft’s search directory. Using it is like talking to a very powerful librarian whose purview is the breadth of the Internet. The old search experience is almost second nature to today’s Internet users: enter relevant keywords into Google, press Enter, and sift through the list of links that show up on the results page. Then click through to find the info you’re looking for. If you don’t find it, perhaps return to the Google Search page and tinker with your keywords to try again. With Bing A.I., Web sites are the source material, not the destination, and results are produced through what Danzico called a “co-creation process” between user and bot. Bing A.I. recaps the recappers and aggregates the aggregators, sifting through the barrage of online information for you. I asked it which toaster Wirecutter recommended, and it told me the Cuisinart CPT-122 2-Slice Compact Plastic Toaster; then I asked it to draw up a list of other recommendations, and it gathered ones from outlets including The Kitchn, Forbes, and The Spruce Eats. Within a few seconds, and without ever leaving the Bing A.I. page, I had a digest of reputable devices. The chatbot wouldn’t tell me precisely which one to buy, however. “I can’t make decisions for you because I’m not a human,” it said.
In some ways, a Bing A.I. user has more agency than a user of Google Search. Communicating with the chatbot involves what Sarah Mody, a senior product marketing manager at Microsoft, described as “learning not to speak the search of twenty years ago.” You communicate not in isolated keywords but in straightforward sentences, and you can narrow or refine your query results by asking the machine follow-ups. If you request an itinerary for a trip to Iceland, for instance, and then ask, “What time does the sun set there?” the bot will understand which “there” you’re referring to. But, in other ways, the Bing user is more limited and passive, encouraged to let the machine decide which information is worthwhile rather than doing any searching on their own. “It’s your travel guide, your bank, your confidante, your guide,” Danzico said. The “conversation mode” interface—a single chat box on top of a gentle color gradient—reflects that one-stop-shop objective. Where using Google Search sometimes feels like engineering the right equation to solve a problem, using Bing A.I. is a bit like a series of text-message conversations. It even punctuates answers with a smiling, blushing emoji: “I’m always happy to chat with you. 😊,” it told me. To the left of the chat box, there’s a button that reads “new topic” and shows a broom sweeping away dust. Clicking it erases the current chat and starts over. The module, Danzico told me, was developed with the help of the A.I. itself.
Though tools like Bing A.I. promise extreme, almost unimaginable convenience for users, they are likely to be even worse for content creators than the search and social-media companies that have siphoned up the majority of digital-advertising dollars over the past decade. Bing A.I. does offer referrals to Web sites in the form of footnotes linking to URLs. But the URLs are intentionally unobtrusive, to minimize for users what one Microsoft staffer described to me as the “cognitive load” of having to click on and scroll through links. The other day, Mody demonstrated over video chat how she could ask Bing A.I. to find a good vegetarian recipe for dinner. The bot pulled up a Bon Appétit recipe for vegetarian lasagna (like The New Yorker, Bon Appétit is owned by Condé Nast) and reprinted it in full within the chat. Then Mody asked it to list all of the ingredients and arrange them by grocery-store aisle—a request that no cooking Web site could hope to fulfill.
Later, on my own, I asked Bing A.I. to give me the latest news about First Republic Bank and the larger unfolding banking crisis. It generated a summary of breaking news, footnoting articles from NBC, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal, which is paywalled. (The Journal has said that any A.I. referencing its material should pay for a proper license, though it may have a hard time enforcing that for publicly accessible articles, because A.I. search crawls the entire Web just as Google does.) Then I asked Bing to present the news in a bulleted list in the style of the newsletter publication Axios. The result was a somewhat dry but otherwise convincing imitation. Another time, when I asked Bing for wallpaper options suitable for bathrooms with showers, it delivered a bulleted list of manufacturers. Instead of Googling for a listicle, I’d “co-created” one with the bot.
So much of the current Web was designed around aggregation—lists of product recommendations on The Strategist, summaries of film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, restaurant reviews on Yelp. What value will those sites have when A.I. can do the aggregation for us? If Google Search is an imperfect book index, telling us where to find the material we need, Bing A.I. is SparkNotes, allowing us to bypass the source material altogether. Users might simply “read” publications in the form of A.I. chat summaries, as if listening to a mechanized butler reciting newspaper headlines aloud. The paradox of A.I., though, is that it relies on the source material—the vast sea of information that other sites create—to generate its answers. For that reason, it’s easy to imagine a kind of vicious cycle caused by the widespread adoption of tools like Bing A.I. If users don’t have to visit sites directly anymore, then those sites’ business models, based on advertising and subscriptions, will collapse. But if those sites can no longer produce content then A.I. tools won’t have fresh, reliable material to digest and regurgitate.
Speaking of fresh and reliable material, what happens when more and more of the material found online is generated by artificial intelligence? Last week, Google and Microsoft both announced a suite of A.I. tools for office workers, with applications that can compose new e-mails, reports, and slide decks or summarize existing ones. Similar tools will almost certainly soon be invading other aspects of our digital lives. In New York, John Herrman described the likely effects as “textual hyperinflation.” When the bot is generating material that workers used to produce, it will become difficult to determine which pieces of content in your in-box are meaningful; there will be no guarantee that any human labor or thought went into a given e-mail or report. We are all already bombarded by spam, mostly of a man-made variety. This will be a new kind of A.I.-generated spam on an unprecedented scale, much of it difficult to distinguish from content made by humans. Sooner than we think, content mills may be using A.I. to generate full articles, publicists may be using it to write press releases, and cooking sites might use it to devise recipes. Humans will need help navigating the glut, but media companies will have fewer resources to devote to serving that need. In such a scenario, A.I. could solve the very problem that it creates: eventually, if tools like Bing A.I. cause the well of original material online to run dry, all that will be left is self-referential bots, dredging up a generic set of answers that machines created in the first place.
In the meantime, non-automated text online will become an artisanal good, a product that we seek out for its unadulterated quality: instead of natural wine, “natural language.” On Tuesday, Google announced the release of its own A.I. chatbot. Called Bard—a more evocative and lofty title than Microsoft’s dry “A.I.-powered copilot”—it amounts to a broadside in the A.I. arms race among tech giants. But Google has conspicuously kept the chatbot separate from its signature product. “We think of Bard as complementary to Google Search,” one company executive told the Times. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of A.I.’s threat to the company’s current model. In its race to catch up with Microsoft, Google must try to avoid cannibalizing itself. Bing, however, is cheerily ushering us into the post-search future. ♦
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