ChatGPT Craze Engulfs China As Companies Clamber For Homegrown Alternatives

Although Microsoft-backed OpenAI has restricted access to its popular ChatGPT app in China, the app is generating a lot of interest in the country, with companies rushing to integrate the technology into their products and launch competing solutions.

While residents of the country are unable to create OpenAI accounts to access the AI chatbot, virtual private networks and foreign phone numbers are assisting some in circumventing those restrictions.

Simultaneously, the OpenAI models underlying the ChatGPT program, which can write essays, recipes, and complex computer code, are relatively accessible in China and are increasingly being incorporated into Chinese consumer technology applications ranging from social networks to online shopping.

The tool’s rising popularity is rapidly raising awareness in China about how advanced American AI is and, according to analysts, how far behind tech firms in the world’s second-largest economy are in their efforts to catch up.

“There is huge excitement around ChatGPT. Unlike the metaverse which faces huge difficulty in finding real-life application, ChatGPT has suddenly helped us achieve human-computer interaction,” said Ding Daoshi, director of Beijing-based internet consultancy Sootoo. “The changes it will bring about are more immediate, more direct and way quicker.”

Although Chinese authorities have not blocked OpenAI or ChatGPT, users in mainland China, Hong Kong, Iran, Russia, and parts of Africa are not permitted to sign up.

According to Reuters, OpenAI is working to make its services more widely available.

“While we would like to make our technology available everywhere, conditions in certain countries make it difficult or impossible for us to do so in a way that is consistent with our mission,” the San Francisco-based firm said in an emailed statement. “We are currently working to increase the number of locations where we can provide safe and beneficial access to our tools.”

According to local media reports, WeChat, China’s largest messaging app, shut down several ChatGPT-related programs that had appeared on the network, but they have since reappeared.

On WeChat, dozens of bots rigged with ChatGPT technology have appeared, with hobbyists using it to create programs or automated accounts that can interact with users. At least one account charges users 9.99 yuan ($1.47) per question.

ChatGPT supports Chinese language interaction and can converse in Chinese, which has contributed to its unofficial adoption in the country.

Chinese companies also use proxy tools or existing partnerships with Microsoft, which is investing billions of dollars in OpenAI, to gain access to tools that allow them to incorporate AI technology into their products.

Proximai, based in Shenzhen, introduced a virtual character into its 3D game-like social app in December, who conversed using ChatGPT’s underlying technology.

Kunlun Tech, a Beijing-based entertainment software company, intends to include ChatGPT in its web browser Opera.

SleekFlow, a Tiger Global-backed Hong Kong startup, said it was incorporating AI into its customer relations messaging tools.

“We have clients all over the world,” Henson Tsai, SleekFlow’s founder said. “Among other things, ChatGPT does excellent translations, sometimes better than other solutions available on the market.”

Some of the country’s largest tech giants, such as Baidu and Alibaba, have joined the buzz, providing updates this week on AI models they have been working on, causing their shares to skyrocket.

Baidu announced this week that it would complete internal testing of its “Ernie Bot,” a large AI model that the search company has been working on since 2019.

Alibaba announced on Wednesday that its research institute Damo Academy was also testing a ChatGPT-style tool.

Duan, whose company uses a Baidu AI chatbot named Plato for natural language processing, claims ChatGPT is at least a generation more powerful than China’s current NLP solutions, though it falls short in some areas, such as understanding conversation context.

Access to OpenAI’s GPT-3, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer, was first made available in 2020, with an update serving as the foundation of ChatGPT.

According to Duan, potential long-term compliance risks mean that Chinese companies would most likely replace ChatGPT with a local alternative if they could match the functionality of the US-developed product.

“So we actually hope that there can be alternative solutions in China which we can directly use… it may handle Chinese even better, and it can also better comply with regulations,” he said.

(Adapted from

Categories: Economy & Finance, Geopolitics, Regulations & Legal, Strategy, Sustainability

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