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Can ChatGPT really challenge Google? Well, it's complicated.

ChatGPT has truly gone viral. Answers from OpenAI's new chatbot have flooded social media feeds since it launched about a week ago. In five days, ChatGPT crossed one million users, according to OpenAI.

Why has it so captured our imaginations? Lori Witzel, director of the Thought Leadership Team at TIBCO, said that it's because ChatGPT directly appeals to our anxieties and mythologies about technology – both how it can help us and how it can hurt us.

"Western first-world culture has a long history with mythos where the creator's creation 'comes to life' – Pygmalion, Pinocchio, Frankenstein," said Witzel. "AI technologies that are intended to produce human-like output ... fit these stories, and also bring to the fore our anxieties about whether our tools will replace us."

As more than one million people have been talking to ChatGPT, they've been impressed with the AI's ability to generate poems and fix code, as well as answer questions like, in my case, "What's a good recipe for French toast?"

That, of course, is the sort of question that one would traditionally ask Alphabet-owned Google (GOOG, GOOGL), whose search capabilities have long been the only bar in town for most Internet users. Some thought pieces quickly emerged, asking if ChatGPT could truly challenge Google.

ChatGPT's answer to a French toast recipe query, provided by Allie Garfinkle.
ChatGPT's answer to a French toast recipe query, provided by Allie Garfinkle.

It's worth examining what ChatGPT's limitations look like. For one, right now, ChatGPT has only been taught up to 2021, so it can't handle or address current events. Ultimately, it's a chatbot, and the goal is that it talks to you – but not that it's necessarily accurate.

“The fact ChatGPT generates grammatically correct text is partially what's amazing," said Reza Zadeh, founder and CEO at AI computer vision company Matroid and an adjunct professor at Stanford University. "This isn't something where they focused on making it accurate. Right now, it's something that's supposed to chat with you, giving non-trivial answers ... It's like we're moving the goalposts to criticize it."

However, that doesn't change the fact ChatGPT might ultimately be used to spread misinformation.

"Though ChatGPT is a great milestone in large language model-powered chatbots, among the many challenges that ChatGPT presents, is the inability of a user to tell when it’s wrong unless you already know the answer," said Navrina Singh, founder and CEO of Credo AI.

"OpenAI has clearly stated this limitation that ChatGPT sometimes writes plausible-sounding, but incorrect and nonsensical answers... One of the immediate risks I am concerned about is the rise of AI-driven misinformation, especially in social media and search engines," she said.

Ultimately, it's helpful to re-frame ChatGPT. It's not a search engine – it's like an incredibly verbally intelligent person who can, sometimes, talk with complete confidence about things he or she knows little about.

“While we’re excited by what ChatGPT can provide, we realize there’s still a problem – it doesn't know the difference between truth and falsehood," said Sridhar Ramaswamy, former long-serving Google executive and now founder of Neeva. "It can and will just make up a story on the spot. You should think of ChatGPT as an idea generator. It's amazing at getting you going in all kinds of different directions, especially in art and poetry."

"Think about ChatGPT as a distillation of the Internet into this large language model," Ramaswamy added. "No one in their right mind should look at a tweet and believe it, the same way no one should look at the output of ChatGPT and believe it at face value."

For now, don't bet on ChatGPT replacing Google

So, will ChatGPT replace Google? Hold your horses, at least for the time being, experts say.

"ChatGPT replacing Google Search is like replacing a silo of lemons with a farmer planting lemon trees that potentially becomes a lemon farm – it’s possible, but not probable in the short-term," Nima Schei, founder and CEO of Hummimgbirds AI. "Google Search has its own advantages, specifically the amount of data they have, and the broader resources they have to collect data. Yet ChatGPT has a superpower, creating human-level bilateral communication, which is exceeding Google Search’s limitations in capturing human intelligence."

Witzel agrees, adding that ChatGPT is fundamentally limited for now.

"Since ChatGPT does not search the internet, while it may complement or augment internet-based search like Google Search, I'm not sure that it would replace Google Search," she said.

Long-term, there's another angle here that's noteworthy – Microsoft (MSFT) is invested in OpenAI to the tune of $1 billion. Microsoft also owns search engine Bing, so it's possible there's an eye towards an integration of some kind down the line, according to Zadeh.

However, there's still an underlying question here – how do people want to search? Do they just want answers directly,or do they want a world of options to wade through? That's complicated, too, according to Pat Condo, founder and CEO of independent search engine Seekr.

"I believe both options are very important – it all depends on the objective or what the user is looking for," he said. "Sometimes people want answers like 'will it rain' or 'how far is the pharmacy from my hotel.' Other times people want to research, read, and understand available information on a broad range of topics. Mobile searches do tend toward specific answers versus desktop searches, where a user may be researching the best backpack for hiking, for example."

In the end, experts say that, while Chat GPT is a milestone, it's certainly not replacing Google Search tomorrow. That said, the rise and popularity of ChatGPT does signal a change, offering a glimpse into where online search tools could be headed in the future, with all the corresponding promises and pitfalls.

"While ChatGPT is still a research release with many limitations, it can already play with the imagination of where AI is heading⁠—which is exciting, but at the same time, works as a call to action to regulators that we need more guardrails to mitigate risk and protect society from its possible, and probable, harm," Singh said.

Allie Garfinkle is a Senior Tech Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @agarfinks.

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