Google Had an AI Chatbot Years Ago, Execs Shut It Down: Report

Google Had an AI Chatbot Years Ago, Execs Shut It Down: Report

Years before ChatGPT, two Google engineers developed an advanced AI chatbot. Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress Former Google engineers developed a conversational AI chatbot years ago, according to The Wall Street Journal. But Google executives stymied their efforts to release it to the public because of security concerns. Google is now racing to catch up with Microsoft’s AI and plans to release its own AI chatbot this year.

Google is expected to release its much-awaited AI chatbot Bard in the near future. But years ago, two former Google engineers pushed their former employer to release a similar chatbot to the public — and they faced resistance, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal.

Around 2018, Daniel De Freitas, who was a search engineer at Google, began working on an AI side project with the goal of creating a conversational chatbot that mimicked the way people speak, former colleagues told the Journal. Noam Shazeer, a software engineer for Google’s AI research unit, later joined the project.

According to the Journal, De Freitas and Shazeer were able to build a chatbot, which they named Meena, that could debate philosophy, casually talk about TV shows, and create puns about horses and cows. They believed Meena could fundamentally change the way people search online, their former colleagues told the Journal.

But their efforts to launch the bot — which they renamed LaMDA, which would become the language model behind Bard — hit an impasse after Google executives said the chatbot did not adhere to its AI safety and fairness standards, according to Journal. Executives blocked multiple attempts by engineers to send the robot to outside researchers, add a chat feature to Google Assistant and launch a public demo, the Journal reported.

Frustrated by the executive response, De Freitas and Shazeer left Google near the end of 2021 to start their own company — despite CEO Sundar Pichai personally urging them to stay and continue working on the chatbot, according to the Journal. Their company, now called Character.Ai, has since released a chatbot that can role-play characters like Elon Musk or Nintendo’s Mario.

“It caused a bit of a stir within Google,” Shazeer said in an interview with investors Aarthi Ramamurthy and Sriram Krishnan last month. “But eventually we decided that maybe we’d have more luck launching things as a startup.”

De Freitas and Shazeer declined an interview request from the Journal and did not respond to The Insider’s request for comment. Google did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Google has been stalling its AI efforts since 2012

Google’s reluctance to release its AI tools is nothing new.

In 2012, Google hired Ray Kurzweil, a computer scientist, to work on its language processing models, TechCrunch reported. About a year later, Google acquired British AI firm DeepMind which aimed to create general artificial intelligence, according to TechCrunch.

However, academics and tech experts pushed back on the technology’s use because of ethical concerns about mass surveillance, the Journal reported, and Google vowed to limit how it would use AI. In 2018, Google ended its project to use its AI technology in military weapons in response to employee backlash, according to the Journal.

But Google’s AI plans may now finally see the light of day, even as discussions about whether its chatbot can be launched responsibly continue. The company’s chatbot, Bard, will come after Microsoft — whose stock is on the rise — released its chatbot through Bing.

After Google’s Bard chatbot generated a factual error during its first public demo last month, Googlers were quick to call the announcement “rushed” and “erroneous.” Alphabet chairman John Hennessy agreed that Google’s chatbot wasn’t “really ready for a product yet.”

Pichai has asked all Google employees to spend two to four hours of their time to help test the product so that it is ready for launch.

“I know this moment is incredibly exciting, and that’s to be expected: the underlying technology is evolving rapidly with so much potential,” Pichai wrote to Google employees in a February memo.

“The most important thing we can do now is focus on building a great product and developing it responsibly,” he said.

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