May 13, 2024 - Technology

Tech's AI answer war heats up

Illustration of two pixelated speech bubbles containing binary code clashing against each other.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

AI's heaviest hitters are positioning themselves for a looming titanic showdown over who will answer the world's questions.

Why it matters: Google has owned this role in the digital universe for two decades, reaping a river of cash from monetizing users' attention — but the rise of ChatGPT opened the door to change, and OpenAI, backed by Microsoft, is coming on strong.

The new fight has broken out because tech's leaders expect users will move away from traditional internet search and toward seeking quick answers from chatbots, using text, voice or even connecting with AI-powered virtual personas.

  • The first generation of voice assistants, led by Siri and Amazon's Alexa, wasn't versatile enough to move into that role, but ChatGPT's success is giving the entire product category new life.

Driving the news: A new voice-assistant version of ChatGPT could headline OpenAI's Monday demo of new features for the popular chatbot, The Information reports.

  • Many observers now expect OpenAI to introduce a search function for ChatGPT in conjunction with Microsoft in the coming weeks, perhaps at Microsoft's upcoming Build conference.
  • The OpenAI event comes on the eve of Google's annual I/O developers' conference this week, and some earlier reports suggested the company would introduce ChatGPT search Monday to directly challenge Google. OpenAI said that wasn't happening.

Google isn't standing still, and has a raft of new AI tricks to show off at its event.

  • The company will aim to show that generative AI is ready to make meaningful improvements for users today in areas ranging from search to Google's voice assistant to its Pixel line of hardware. It will also try to show that its research unit continues to push the field's boundaries.

Microsoft will host its Build conference in Seattle the following week, with a lead-up press event showcasing plans for generative AI to reinvigorate the venerable PC, including the firm's own Surface devices.

  • Microsoft also continues to seek an AI boost for its Bing search engine, since even a small gain in a market as large as search can be a big deal.
  • The software giant also stands to gain if users do more of their information-gathering using assistants like the new Copilot it has added to its products.

Apple's turn will come next.

  • The iPhone maker has promised to unveil its long-awaited generative AI strategy at its Worldwide Developers Conference in early June.
  • Apple may showcase a new version of Siri, per the New York Times, which described the upgrade as a "brain transplant" for Apple's long-in-the-tooth voice assistant.
  • Apple has been promoting the AI capabilities of its new chips, and by running generative AI directly on its devices rather than in the cloud, it could lower operating costs and offer users greater privacy for their personal data.
  • But Apple is likely to need others' help, at least in the near term. Bloomberg reported over the weekend that Apple is also closing in on a deal to power some iPhone features using OpenAI's AI models, and Apple is also talking with Google about using its Gemini model.

The big picture: Silicon Valley veterans see a reprise of the great search wars of the early internet era. Google won that fight, and secured for itself control over the web and decades of enormous profit.

  • The business is so vast and lucrative that Google pays Apple over $20 billion a year to serve as the default search provider for the iPhone — and still makes tons of money on the deal.
  • That stat emerged in documents made public in a major federal antitrust lawsuit against Google, a reminder that the AI shakeup is happening at a moment when Google is already on the defense.
  • The judge's decision in that trial could come any time.

The other side: Apple never really entered the search wars, but still became the U.S.'s most valuable company, thought it has recently see-sawed with Microsoft for the top title (both are roughly $3 trillion companies now).

  • Meta and Amazon are also deeply committed to generative AI, but they are more focused on connecting people (Meta) and delivering goods and services (Amazon) than answering users' questions.

Between the lines: Developers' conferences like I/O, Build and Apple's WWDC are where tech giants sketch the foundations and architecture of their next-generation offerings and lay out their long-term visions.

  • Their goal is to woo developers to build their new software projects on their turf rather than a competitor's.

What we're watching: The next four weeks will clarify how AI's competitive struggle will play out over the next two years, determining how billions will be spent, which new products will catch fire or fizzle out, and who will ultimately control an AI-powered tech industry.

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