In the half-century since Star Trek premiered, a lot of the far-future tech imagined for the show has found its way into our lives here, in the present. Communicators inspired our flip phones, then the tricorder turned into our modern-day smartphones. People now video chat with each other across the globe. Tech is even helping people regain a form of sight and hearing.
On Tuesday, Microsoft and artificial intelligence lab OpenAI began the race to conquer another sci-fi promise: a conversational computer that communicates like a human even if it doesn't exactly think for itself.
Microsoft describes it as an "AI-powered co-pilot."
By infusing Microsoft's Bing search engine with OpenAI's ChatGPT programming smarts, the two companies said, we'll soon be able to ask for help planning a dinner party, drafting an email apologizing for being late or comparing financial reports from various companies. Microsoft said it'll bring the technology to its Edge browser and Office productivity apps too.
"The web was born on the PC and the server. And then it evolved with mobile and cloud. And now the question is, 'How is AI going to reshape the web?'" said Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, when announcing the new Bing search features at the company's Redmond, Washington, headquarters. Nadella had become a true believer when traveling to his native India, where a programmer connected websites for government subsidies to intelligent search and speech recognition software, allowing a rural farmer to fill out a complex form by merely answering questions asked by the computer in front of him.
"I was seeing something so profound," Nadella said. "This technology is going to reshape pretty much every software category."
Microsoft's moves mark a potential turning point for the tech world, a change possibly as large as when we moved from keyboard and mouse to the touchscreen. In this case, it would upend two decades of Google's dominance over how we find what we're looking for on the internet.
Ultimately, these moves would change the nature of how we interact with the devices around us, with the promise of making them far easier to use.
Get ready for changes to the very search prompt we've become accustomed to, and the stilted language we use to find things around the web. "Mexico City travel tips" may soon become "Create a five-day trip for me and my family to Mexico City," which spits out a fully scheduled itinerary, to which you could follow up, "How about four days instead?"
It's not yet clear whether Microsoft's technology is more of a futuristic co-pilot or a pal who's good at party tricks. But Technalysis research analyst Bob O'Donnell said the new Bing still rings as "pretty cool," echoing views of several analysts and reporters attending Microsoft's event. "Any average person is going to look at this and say, 'I'll never search the same way again,'" he added. "I've been around a long time, but this is pretty different."
Microsoft is starting with Bing search, but expect sophisticated AI intermediaries to crop up everywhere: getting writing advice in your word processor that's far more nuanced than spellcheck, retrieving the right company data for your spreadsheet or getting an automatic list of highlights from that videoconference.
Read more: Why the ChatGPT AI Chatbot Is Blowing Everyone's Mind
AI smarts in search
To Microsoft, this is more than simply artificial intelligence software that can hold a conversation. Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's corporate vice president of modern life, search and devices, said it'll combine the information organized by Microsoft's Bing search engine with computer programs that can "generate" new wording by mixing and matching them in response to requests from us.
"Not only does it give you search results, it will actually answer your questions," Mehdi said. "When you need that spark of creativity, Bing can generate content for you automatically to help you get started."
This is all rather heady stuff, coming at a time when the tech industry is going through waves of layoffs and disappointing financial results. Business and governments around the world are still struggling to find their footing after the COVID-19 pandemic too.
New AI tech also tends to bring up existential concerns. Fiction authors and Hollywood directors have spent decades warning about the dangers of AI run amok, potentially leading to humanity's destruction.
After OpenAI's release of a public test version of its ChatGPT program in November, and its rapid growth to millions of users two months later, most people's concerns seem to revolve around issues like trustworthiness, the provenance of the material and the potential spread of disinformation, issues Microsoft said it has built guardrails around.
Microsoft is keenly aware of the reputation risks, which is one reason it's using the ability of its Bing technology to judge the trustworthiness and authority of online documents. Bing adds citations, linking to sources like Wikipedia or The New York Times to show its work.
Those concerns haven't stopped coders, who are already using advanced artificial intelligence technology to help them create apps on Microsoft-owned GitHub. Social media managers are relying on AI to help determine the best time to post a new item. Even we here at CNET are experimenting with whether AI can help write explainer-type stories about the ever changing world of finance.
For Microsoft, the new Bing marks a victory of shipping a key web product ahead of Google, said Moor Insights and Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. "To even have Microsoft in the game of search along with Google -- that could be huge for the company."
More than mere change
Microsoft has long been a dominant software maker for desktop and mobile devices, but it's struggled to move beyond that. Microsoft's Bing search engine has for years sat in the shadow of companies like Google, whose namesake service is used by nearly 93% of people on desktop, tablet and mobile devices, according to StatCounter. Apple and Amazon, meanwhile, helped to popularize voice assistants with their Siri and Alexa apps, which along with Google's Assistant, are also more popular than Microsoft's competing Cortana.
Even the AI smarts are not Microsoft's alone, but rather the result of work by OpenAI, an artificial intelligence startup, whose mission is to develop a "safe and beneficial" artificial general intelligence system or to help others do so. OpenAI's made splashes before, particularly with DALL-E, which creates what's now called "generative art" based on text prompts you type in.
What helped Microsoft's new Bing stand out on Tuesday was the experience, said Ed Anderson, an analyst at Gartner and former Microsoft marketing director, who attended the event. "What Microsoft has shown here is that there is a compelling improvement in the experience, especially for search," he said. "I think Google in some form will have to respond to that."
Indeed, the day before Microsoft's event, Google announced its competing AI-powered service, Bard, which uses similar technologies to those behind Microsoft's new Bing. Bard will be arriving "soon," Google said.
More chat, more bots, more competition
Microsoft, Google and OpenAI won't be the only companies competing in this new AI-powered world. Facebook parent Meta has for years experimented with artificial intelligence, in part as a tool to fight the spread of hate and disinformation on its namesake social network, as well as part of its research into the next generation of computing.
There are plenty of startups, too, like AI21 Labs, Anthropic, Adept AI Labs and Cohere. Chinese tech giant Baidu has an AI chatbot called Ernie on the way as well.
There's a reason AI is so hot. Industry experts are speculating that the switch to AI-powered chat programs will change how we search for and find information. That may force even more companies to invest in AI and possibly even create their own competing chatbot-powered program to keep people's attention.
"You're going to have to fight for the first bit of traffic," said Sridhar Ramaswamy, a former Google ads senior vice president who co-founded Neeva, an ad-free personalized search engine and AI tech company. He describes ChatGPT and technology like it as "a concierge that helps you interact with the world," language that's very similar to Microsoft's "co-pilot."
David Boyle, head of brand-building agency Audience Strategies, is so excited by the potential he sees in ChatGPT that he's already co-authored a book called Prompt about how businesses can use it. When discussing the technology, he referred back to a description Apple co-founder Steve Jobs used some 40 years ago to portray the power of computers, calling them a "bicycle for our minds."
ChatGPT and similar technologies are "the electric bike for the mind," Boyle said, which helps you "conquer bigger hills and further distances than you otherwise would have done," but you still have to pedal.
That's OK, though. Even in the world of Star Trek, humans still have their place. Even if it's just to tell the ship's computer where to go next, and then give the order, "Engage."
Editors' note: CNET is using an AI engine to create some personal finance explainers that are edited and fact-checked by our editors. For more, see this post.