The future of the information economy is in flux as the internet search industry enters a new realm – GeekWire

Microsoft Bing Announcement, Redmond, Wash., February 7, 2023. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed by Oren Etzioni, former CEO and current technical director at the Allen Institute of Intelligence, a Seattle-based organization at the forefront of natural language processing research.

The integration of ChatGPT with Microsoft’s Bing search engine heralds a tectonic shift for consumers, publishers, and advertisers across the web.

In the past few weeks, Bing has garnered a lot of attention and Google has lost more than $100 billion in market cap. But the changes over the next five years will be far more profound.

What appeared to be a reputable and enduring web search industry, largely monopolized by Google, has been shaken by the fact that content generation is now instantaneous and fully automated, and its costs are rapidly dropping to zero.

This shift means authoritative sources and real experts will be more important than ever.

For consumers, more efficient search has a long history that includes Google’s knowledge panels (2012), featured snippets at the top of the search results page (2014), voice assistants like Alexa (2014), and now ChatGPT.

Over time, a concierge experience will emerge where a consumer can ask a question, get an answer from a chatbot, and engage in a dialogue to further refine the answer. This could be good news for consumers, but it also raises a thorny question: who does the concierge work for?

As a consumer, I’m hoping for an objective and informative response, but the chatbot won’t necessarily suffice.

  • A chatbot’s responses depend on its training text, which contains myriad biases.
  • The chatbot can be manipulated through its training process (similar to the practice of Google bombing).
  • Different chatbots will emerge, representing specific perspectives (the GOP bot), commercial interests (the ExxonMobil bot), and specific people (would you like to converse with the Biden bot? The Kim Kardashian bot?).
  • And of course, chatbots could be influenced by advertisers.

Historically, search engines have distinguished between search results and sponsored or “recommended” results (ie ads), but product placement can show up in chatbot responses and undermine their credibility.

In response, consumer advocate chatbots will emerge that charge a subscription fee rather than being ad-supported. As chatbots proliferate, search engines will emerge to help consumers find the “right” bot to have a conversation with. Meta bots could collect multiple answers to a question, each coming from a different chatbot.

AI2 technical director Oren Etzioni. (AI2 photo)

Consumers are being inundated with an unprecedented amount of auto-generated “noise” in the form of websites and messages — emails, posts, social media replies, and more.

The minimal cost of generating seemingly authentic text (along with images, audio, and even video) leads to unprecedented information pollution and even AI-based counterfeiting.

In response, I have advocated a greater role for digital authentication of identity (who actually wrote this message?) and for rules requiring bots to identify themselves. Consumers have a right to know whether we are interacting with a person or a bot.

As the amount of content increases, publishers will face unprecedented pressure to remain relevant, findable and valuable. Of course, clickbait websites with titles like “Top 10 things to do in Seattle” are being replaced with more personalized and up-to-date chatbot responses. Collections of reviews found on Amazon or Google Maps only remain informative if the reviews are properly authenticated – otherwise it’s all too easy to create batches of fake reviews.

Likewise, the information in social media (e.g. popular posts) is only meaningful if the popularity is not manipulated by bots. Reliable sources become even more important as people clamor for reliable facts in a maelstrom of misinformation. Brands and reputation are built on providing real, authentic answers.

In a world where “what” is said, “who” said it becomes increasingly important.

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