Bot and Ernie: Everything You Need to Know About China's ChatGPT Equivalent

Chinese companies, like their Western counterparts, are throwing their hats in the generative AI ring.

Lisa Lacy Lead AI Writer
Lisa joined CNET after more than 20 years as a reporter and editor. Career highlights include a 2020 story about problematic brand mascots, which preceded historic name changes, and going viral in 2021 after daring to ask, "Why are cans of cranberry sauce labeled upside-down?" She has interviewed celebrities like Serena Williams, Brian Cox and Tracee Ellis Ross. Anna Kendrick said her name sounds like a character from Beverly Hills, 90210. Rick Astley asked if she knew what Rickrolling was. She lives outside Atlanta with her son, two golden retrievers and two cats.
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Lisa Lacy
3 min read
Screenshots of both the Baidu and the Ernie Bot logos.
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At a developer conference in Shenzhen, China, this week, tech company Baidu announced its Ernie chatbot has amassed 200 million users in eight months.

While this is a fraction of China's population, Nicole Greene, a VP analyst at research firm Gartner, noted Ernie fills a market gap due to government restrictions.

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While US consumers have had access to generative AI since November 2022, tools like ChatGPTGemini and Copilot aren't available in China. As a result, homegrown tech companies like Baidu are eager to capitalize on the opportunity to serve an unmet need -- and, like US companies, they are eager to tout advancements.

Jason Alan Snyder, global CTO of Momentum Worldwide, called Ernie "a major milestone in Chinese AI development … [which] demonstrates the country's commitment to rivaling Western tech giants in the generative AI race."     

If this is the first you've heard of Ernie, this explainer is for you. Here's everything you need to know about the Chinese AI tool.

What is Ernie?

Ernie Bot is a large language model and generative AI tool. Like ChatGPT, users interact via text to create content. But instead of English, Ernie understands Chinese -- and, according to Baidu, its responses "[approach] human level."

In a blog post, Baidu said Ernie is capable of multi-modal generation, which means it can create different types of content like text and visuals. This includes both literary and business writing, as well as mathematical calculations. (It can also create a variety of Thanksgiving turkey images.)

Read more: AI Atlas: Your Guide to Today's Artificial Intelligence

Why did Baidu name this bot Ernie?

Ernie stands for Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration.

How do you use Ernie?

To access Ernie, users can visit Baidu's website or download the bot from app stores.

They must create an account and be logged in to make queries. Users outside China can access Ernie. However, in order to sign up for an account, you must provide a mobile phone number from mainland China.

How long has Ernie been available?

Baidu launched Ernie in March 2023.

However, it wasn't publicly available until August 2023. Reports say that's when Chinese regulators gave Baidu approval for rollout. (Baidu didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Who are Ernie's competitors?

Alibaba has a large language model called Tongyi Qianwen, which debuted in April 2023. AI platform SenseTime released its SenseChat chatbot the same month, while TikTok owner ByteDance was reportedly testing a chatbot code-named Grace in June 2023, and WeChat owner Tencent announced its Hunyuan chatbot in September 2023.

ByteDance didn't respond to a request for comment.

What is Ernie's latest version?

Ernie 4.0 was released in October 2023.

Baidu CEO Robin Li noted Ernie 4.0 can better understand complex requests and generate text, images and videos.

Baidu announced Ernie 3.5 four months earlier, which the tech company said included improvements in writing, reasoning and code generation, as well as in its ability to make inferences.

Like many US chatbot models, Ernie 3.5 is free for the public to use, while Ernie 4.0 is accessible via a subscription.

How does Ernie compare to US chatbots?

While functionality and access are similar, Baidu said Ernie 3.5 can beat GPT-4 in multiple Chinese language capabilities.

While we don't necessarily have an apples-to-apples comparison for reach, Baidu said Ernie has 200 million users. In November 2023, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said ChatGPT had 100 million weekly users.

What are the risks associated with Ernie?

Ernie faces the same challenges as US chatbots, including hallucinations, as well as security, privacy and copyright violations, along with ethical and bias concerns and deepfakes.

But chatbots in China face the additional challenge of government censorship, which experts say can make the problem of chatbot bias even worse.

For more CNET reviews of generative AI tools like Gemini, Claude, ChatGPT and Microsoft Copilot, along with all the latest AI news, tips and explainers, see our new AI Atlas project.

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