ChatGPT is the tech story of the decade (three years in) and is leading the way as AI becomes mainstream. Microsoft has gone big on the chatbot, using its technology to build the new Bing Chat search AI. However, while OpenAI is getting plenty of credit for ChatGPT, Google may be thinking about what might have been.

A new report from The Wall Street Journal claims Google had a ChatGPT-style natural language processing (NLP) AI as early as 2018. However, executives within the company shut down the project believing it to be too dangerous.

Research engineer Deniel De Freitas initiated the project and was working on AI for a conversational chatbot. It could do the things ChatGPT can, including copying how humans talk. Former participants in the project told the Journal that Noam Shazeer, a Google software engineer, later joined the project and a chatbot was built by the team.

This AI was known as Meena and was able to discuss casual subjects such as TV shows, create jokes, engage in wordplay, and argue about philosophy. Even back in 2018, there was a feeling the technology could be used to transform search. However, Google eventually halted development as the company said the bot did not meet its AI safety standards.

Bard is Born

By time that happened, the bot was known as LaMDA. If that name sounds familiar, it s the underpinning AI that is now a part of Bard. Google is set to launch its Bard chatbot this month in direct response to ChatGPT and Microsoft Bing.

Microsoft’s multi-billion-dollar investment into OpenAI in January gave the company unique access to the technology that powers ChatGPT. Microsoft took the chatbot AI and built its own Prometheus AI engine to power the new Bing Chat. Google was caught off guard by Microsoft’s swift commitment to AI and launch of a product.

To compete with Microsoft and not be left behind, the company announced the March release of Bard.

During the announcement presentation, the chatbot got the information wrong, embarrassing Google and sending the company’s shares falling. CEO Sundar Pichai then ordered employees to spend 2 to 4 hours per day using the bot and testing it. This demand was on an already flustered workforce following Google’s January decision to slash 12,000 jobs.

I reported last week how Google is now pivoting Bard to be a more general AI and not just for search, confusing employees in the process.

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