ChatGPT strikes fear into the hearts of professionals in every industry, from education and publishing to healthcare and big tech. Apparently, the bot is not only going to steal your work, but also put search engines and a variety of other technologies out of business.

Of course, few things in the tech industry are as overhyped as anything to do with artificial intelligence. Sensational headlines are easy to write, but is there any substance to the idea that ChatGPT is replacing Google and other search engines?

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT (or Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer) is an AI chatbot system developed by OpenAI. More specifically, it is a question answering (QA) model that uses natural language processing (NLP) to understand human questions/commands and then generate answers from the information in its training dataset.

Recently, ChatGPT has received a lot of attention for its ability to provide clear, concise – and accurate – answers to questions of varying complexity.

The quality of its answers has led to comparisons with search engines and suggestions that it does a better job than the likes of Google. The question is increasingly being asked whether ChatGPT or future versions of the same technology will replace search engines.

Can ChatGPT replace search engines?

The speculation only increases when you have people like Paul Buchheit – the man who created Gmail – saying AI bots like ChatGPT will “displace” search engines within a year or two.

However, ChatGPT is not a search engine and, more importantly, it was not designed to solve the same problems as a search engine. That said, that is designed to solve some of the problems that search engines face and, arguably, it does a better job than Google.

The first of these problems is natural language processing (NLP), a machine learning technology that aims to understand the meaning of text or speech. ChatGPT’s core function is to understand human commands and provide human responses.

This is where ChatGPT excels, but we need to consider the contextual application of the technology here.

Google tries to understand a query and give the best search results. It is not formulating its own answers, but trying to provide the best existing answers in order of relevance. ChatGPT, on the other hand, tries to understand the command and generate its own response from existing information.

This distinction is important because it makes ChatGPT “better” at certain types of interactions and Google at others. Also keep in mind that Google is designed to handle a much wider range of interactions than ChatGPT – something we’ll explore in more detail later.

What is ChatGPTG good at?

ChatGPT sets a new benchmark for natural language processing (NLP) and, more specifically, the question answering (QA) discipline. This requires the system to understand the initial question, find relevant information within its training data, and provide a suitable answer.

By all accounts, ChatGPT does a very good job of this – within certain limitations.

You can test ChatGPT for yourself by creating an OpenAI account (it’s free to sign up and test). The initial interface lists a set of example commands along with its capabilities and limitations.

We’ll discuss the limitations in the next section, but first let’s see how it handles the first example assignment: “Explain quantum computing in simple terms”.

Now we have to remember ChatGPT generated this answer from existing information. In other words, it’s an AI-generated answer that answers the question, makes perfect grammatical sense, and does a pretty good job of explaining one aspect of quantum computing (it does not touch quantum theory at all).

A quick Google search brings up broader definitions of quantum computing (with reference to quantum theory, the goal of studying energy and matter at the atomic and subatomic level, etc.) as well as the more operational aspects of quantum computing (bits vs qubits) front

Here, Google can offer multiple answers to the same question, and assuming it’s doing its job properly, these answers should all come from experts.

In theory, Google should provide the best answer(s) to a technical question of this nature – and in this case, the search giant achieves that. That said, the ChatGPT probably does a better job of simplifying complex information here.

ChatGPT’s answer is impressively concise, informative and easy to understand.

So what happens if we ask ChatGPT to explain quantum computing in more detail?

The answer repeats many of the same elements from his initial answer, but it expands on its first explanation. This time it refers to quantum mechanics and explains some key properties of qubits, but you can start to see where it takes bits of information from different sources and fuses them together.

If you compare this answer to the first result of our Google search for “quantum calculations simple explanation,” the resulting Investopedia page offers a complete article with the following sections:

  • What is quantum computing?
  • Understanding quantum computing
  • Uses and benefits of quantum computing
  • Characteristics of quantum computing
  • Limitations of quantum computing
  • Quantum computer vs classical computer
  • Quantum computers in development (examples)
  • Frequently Asked Questions

This is 1,661 words of content written by experts, reviewed and checked using information from credited sources – starting from the first result in Google Search.

ChatGPT does what it was designed to do very well: provide human responses to human prompts. However, expect it to replace something that it is not designed to be (eg a search engine) sets it up to fail.

What are the limitations of ChatGPT?

Once you open the trial version of ChatGPT, the interface contains three of its biggest limitations:

  • “May sometimes generate incorrect information”
  • “May occasionally produce harmful instructions or biased content”
  • “Limited knowledge of world and events after 2021”

This immediately tells us that we cannot rely on ChatGPT generate accurate information. The big follow-up question is: can we rely on Google and other search engines to provide accurate information?

Well, we have to reiterate that ChatGPT generates answers from large amounts of information that already exists. Google, on the other hand, is curating the web pages it deems most relevant and accurate to the user’s query.

In this sense, Google essentially takes a third-party role and assumes less responsibility.

More importantly, Google is constantly getting better at it prioritizing content written by experts and people with experience in the relevant subject.

ChatGPT basically retrieves information from its dataset and this raises a few key issues:

  • It can aggregate the wrong combination of information and provide inaccurate information (as OpenAI acknowledges).
  • This may be factually accurate, but misplaces emphasis on one aspect of a subject instead of something fundamentally more important
  • This can revive common misconceptions
  • It struggles to add any depth of information
  • It struggles with highly debated topics

Let’s be clear, search engines and web content are not immune to any of the issues listed above – far from it. However, search engines are designed to point users to multiple sources of information, making it easy for them to select reliable sources and gain a deeper level of understanding.

ChatGPT is not designed to do so.

In terms of sometimes producing “harmful instructions or biased content”, this is a significant risk with all AI information systems and it is imperative that users are informed of this – something OpenAI rightly does on ChatGPT’s primary interface.

The final limitation that OpenAI points out refers to ChatGPT’s training dataset, which only includes data running up to a certain point in 2021.

In practical terms, this means that ChatGPT is not ideal for up-to-date general queries such as “who is the current Prime Minister in the UK?”

Of course, we know that Google is more than capable of handling queries like this.

Likewise, ChatGPT isn’t going to give you very good weather reports for queries like “Tokyo weather” or the latest information on fast-moving topics like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Takeaway: ChatGPT is not a search engine – let alone a good one

Comparing ChatGPT to a search engine like Google is a flawed experiment from the start. In this article, we tried to look at the most comparable use cases for both technologies, but it’s still not a fair battle.

If we compare the question answering (QA) functions of natural language processing (NLP), ChatGPT now sets the standard. However, it does not apply these technologies to the same use cases as search engines like Google. ChatGPT is a question-and-answer system – and an impressive one at that – but it’s not a search engine in any sense of the definition.

In terms of information delivery, such as Vertical jump, we compared the output of ChatGPT and Google Search, but we didn’t even touch on the other interactions that search engines perform. No one is booking flights through ChatGPT, finding local shops that are currently open or comparing different products.

This doesn’t mean that the technology currently powering ChatGPT will one day power whatever replaces search engines as we know them – but it won’t be ChatGPT itself.

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