FOR MORE than 25 years, search engines have been the internet's front door. AltaVista, the first site to show searches of the full text of the web, was swiftly dethroned by Google, which has dominated the field in most of the world ever since.

Google's search engine, still the heart of its business, has made its parent, Alphabet, one of the world's most valuable companies, with revenues of $283 billion in 2022 and a market capitalization of $1.3 trillion. Google is not merely a household name ; it is a verb.

BUT nothing lasts forever, particularly in technology, just ask IBM, which once ruled business computing, or Nokia, once the leader in mobile phones. Both were dethroned because they fumbled big technological transitions.

NOW tech firms are salivating over an innovation that might herald a similar shift -and a similar opportunity.

Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence [AI] let users gather information via typed conversations. Leading the field is ChatGPT, made by OpenAI, a startup.

By the end of this January, two months after its launch, ChatGPT was being used by more than 100 million, making it the '' fastest growing consumer application in history '', according to UBS, a bank.

AI is already used behind the scenes in many products, but ChatGPT has put it centre stage, by letting people chat with an AI directly. ChatGPT can write essays in various styles, explain complex concepts, summarise text and answer trivia questions. 

It can even [ narrowly ] pass legal and medical exams. And it can synthesise knowledge from the web : for example, listing holiday spots that match certain criteria, or suggesting menus or itineraries.

If asked, it can explain its reasoning and provide detail. Many things that people use search engines for today, in short, can be done better with chatbots.

Hence the flurry of announcements, as rival firms try to seize the initiative. On February 7th Microsoft, which has invested more than $11 billion in OpenAI, revealed a new version of Bing, its search engine, which incorporates ChatGPT.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft's boss, sees this as his chance to challenge Google. For its part Google has announced Bard, its own chatbot, as a ''companion'' to its search engine. 

It has also taken a $300 million stake in Anthropic, a startup founded by ex-Open AI employees, which has built a chatbot called Claude. The share price of Baidu, known as the Google of China, jumped when it said it would release its chatbot, called Ernie.

But can chatbots be trusted, and what do they mean for  search and its lucrative advertising business?   Do they. herald a Schumpeterian moment in which AI topples incumbent firms and elevates upstarts? 

The answers depend on three things :  moral choices, monetisation and monopoly economics.

This Master Essay continues.  The World Students  Society thanks The Economist.


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