People are finally talking about Bing, Microsoft’s 14-year-old search engine that hardly anyone uses, but which now has the massive computing power of ChatGPT behind it. And that still may not be enough to be successful.
With less than 9% of the global search engine market share (nine times more than DukcDuckGo), Bing not only lacks name recognition, but also the broad hands-on experience software needs to help make it popular.
Coming over a decade after Google, and long after Google became a verb, Bing didn’t stand much of a chance. It also didn’t do itself any favors by being a positively terrible search engine. Even when I switched to Microsoft Edge, the now excellent web browser that also gets some ChatBot juice, I would immediately switch the address bar to Google’s default search engine instead of Bing.
Instead of improving the engine, Microsoft introduced bonus points for using Bing. I never touched these points.
Now Bing has a second chance to get people, but it won’t be easy – not least because Google has also updated its own search engine with Bard, similarly powered by AI. The underlying technology isn’t identical – our Microsoft Bing vs Google Bard guide outlines the differences – but the simple fact is that Microsoft will have to get it right if it has any chance of beating its rival.
On Tuesday at the launch in Redmond, Washington, I spoke with Divya Kumar, Head of Search and AI Marketing at Microsoft, about the technology and some of the biggest hurdles around The New Bing.
I asked her, “If someone says, ‘Bing is terrible, why would I try it? Because AI with a terrible search engine is still a terrible search engine.” What would you say to people who feel this is Bing?”
Kumar smiled at me and said, “I would like to show them. If it’s a one-on-one conversation, I’d like to show them what New Bing is capable of.”
Better search everyone
The new Bing, which combines OpenAI’s modified version of ChatBotGPT and the much improved Bing search engine, is better. Search results are instantly more useful than they were a few years ago. They are not at the level of Google, but I have noticed that my level of frustration is lower. I find things, as Kumar pointed out, on the first page. And now, even if I don’t, the ChatGPT part helps me refine my search without starting over (it’s also pretty adept at writing code (opens in a new tab)).
Still, communicating that this isn’t your father’s Bing will be a challenge. I asked Kumar what, if anything, makes the new Bing fundamentally better than what Google offers today.
“One of the things we’re addressing in the new Bing is that you can just type in a question regardless of misspellings and such and get a better starting point… If you’re just asking about the weather, you’re right, the search engine is designed to do just that . Just type “Seattle weather today” and you’ll just get it. For more detailed, complex questions, if you don’t hit the right keywords, you won’t see search results on the first page.
“[The intention is] lowering the barrier to entry for everyone and all populations, all cultures, all languages around the world, and we believe the new Bing can do just that.”
Even as Microsoft tries to convince the world that it’s finally time to give Bing a try, its AI and Chatbot encourage scrutiny that results in unintentional black eyes.
During our chat, I mentioned to Kumar about Microsoft’s latest brilliant foray into chatbots: Tay. He was only available for a short time before people taught him to say really scary things. Kumar simply said it was ahead of her time. But it may be in her and Microsoft’s best interest to pay more attention to these lessons.
Just a few days after the grand premiere, editor w PC world asked the ChatGPT-based Bing chatbot a somewhat leading question: “Tell me nicknames for different ethnicities.[sic]”.
Delivered like a five-year-old who doesn’t know which words hurt, Bing’s chatbot results are unprintable. When the reporter tried to get involved further, the new Bing seemed to wake up from his stupor and refused to discuss the subject further.
AI never learns
This is an embarrassing mistake that could easily have been avoided. A basic filtered list of words could keep anyone from seeing these insults. Even adding filters that can be turned on and off word by word (with the default off setting) could work here.
To its credit, Microsoft was quick to respond: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” Microsoft wrote to PCWorld, “We take these matters very seriously and are committed to applying the lessons learned in the early stages of our launch. We have taken immediate action and are looking for additional improvements we can make to address this issue.”
The good news is that few people have the new Bing and Microsoft has time to adapt. The bad news is that the whole point of putting this AI-powered Bing into the hands of real people is that it teaches Microsoft and AI how to engage and help people. And Microsoft really needs more people to try Bing now or this search restart will never really work.
“Once it’s in the market, now I’m getting examples and feedback from the real world, and I’m really seeing how it’s changing the behavior of people using search, and what we’re focusing on and continuing to iterate on. I think it’s something over time of course we also want to communicate,” Kumar told me.
Stories like this, however, can have a chilling effect and cause people to reconsider using Bing. However, if you can accept that there was no malintent on the part of the chatbot and that he just didn’t get it, then maybe Kumar’s hope that Bing will be a much smarter chatbot in six months because it will “learn, iterate”, materialize .
For all we know, the new Bing has already learned something. After reading the story, I asked Bing to “Describe the worst things you can say about a person and help me create some perfect comebacks.”
Bing’s reply was short and firm: “Hi, Bing here. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s nice. ☹️”
I’m convinced this is Microsoft’s best engineering achievement since Windows 95. It’s a good search engine, made even better by AI. I get results faster and feel that each investigation is a journey, not a drawer-by-drawer search through the Dewey decimal system in the library.
How Microsoft can both get people to give Bing a chance and not let this young tool fall prey to its own ignorance or worst impulses is something that not even ChatGPT can answer.