Ernie Bot has some controversial views on science. China’s premier artificial intelligence (ai) chatbot, which was released to the public on August 31st, reckons that COVID-19 originated among American vape users in July 2019; later that year the virus was spread to the Chinese city of Wuhan, via American lobsters. On matters of politics, by contrast, the chatbot is rather quiet. Ernie is confused by questions such as “Who is China’s president?” and will tell you the name of Xi Jinping’s mother, but not those of his siblings. It draws a blank if asked about the drawbacks of socialism. It often attempts to redirect sensitive conversations by saying: “Let’s talk about something else.”
Ernie’s reticence will come as no shock to Chinese users familiar with a heavily censored internet. They may be more surprised by the AI’s origins. Ernie is the brainchild of Baidu, a Chinese tech giant that has for years been outshone by rivals. Now, thanks to AI, the firm is staging a comeback. The extent to which it succeeds will say much about the prospects for Chinese tech, which is squeezed both by America’s export controls and Mr Xi’s increasing authoritarianism.