This article is from Big Technology, a newsletter by Alex Kantrowitz.
Google’s had an awkward week. After years of preaching that conversational search was its future, it’s stood by as the world discovered ChatGPT.
The powerful chatbot from OpenAI takes queries—some meant for the search bar—and answers with astonishing conversational replies. It’s shared recipes, reviewed code, and argued politics so adeptly that screenshots of its answers now fill social media. This was the future Google promised. But not with someone else fulfilling it.
How Google missed this moment is not a simple matter of a blind spot. It’s a case of an incumbent being so careful about its business, reputation, and customer relationships that it refused to release similar, more powerful tech. And it’s far from the end of the story.
“Google thinks a lot about how something can damage its reputation,” said Gaurav Nemade, a former Google product manager who was the first person who helmed its LaMDA chatbot project. “They lean on the side of conservatism.”
Google’s LaMDA—made famous, if you would call it that, when engineer and tester Blake Lemoine called it sentient—is a more capable bot than ChatGPT, yet the company’s been hesitant to make it public. For Google, the problem with chatbots is they’re wrong a lot, yet present their answers with undeserved confidence. Leading people astray—with assuredness—is less than ideal for a company built on helping you find the right answers. So LaMDA remains in research mode.
Even if chatbots were to fix their accuracy issues, Google would still have a business-model problem to contend with. The company makes money when people click ads next to search results, and it’s awkward to fit ads into conversational replies. Imagine receiving a response and then immediately getting pitched to go somewhere else—it feels slimy and unhelpful. Google thus has little incentive to move us beyond traditional search, at least not in a paradigm-shifting way, until it figures out how to make the money aspect work. In the meantime, it’ll stick with the less impressive Google Assistant.
“There’s a reason why Clayton Christensen wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma. It’s a real dilemma,” Box CEO Aaron Levie told me on the Big Technology Podcast this week. “Google doesn’t inherently want you … to just get the answer to every problem. Because that might reduce the need to go click around the web, which would then reduce the need for us to go to Google.”
But Google’s reasons to keep LaMDA private fade a bit with a competitor emerging. A sophisticated, public chatbot like ChatGPT makes waiting for the perfect business model risky. Delay long enough, and you could cede the market. ChatGPT will also take criticism as it gains adoption, sustaining hits that otherwise would’ve been Google’s. And ChatGPT’s shortcomings will teach people to view its certainty with skepticism, clearing the way for a risk-averse Google to release its own version.
For now, ChatGPT’s threat to Google remains partially hypothetical. The bot doesn’t access the internet, knows nothing beyond 2021 (or at least, so it says), and has no ads. So while it may take some traditional queries away from Google, it won’t push the $1.2 trillion company to the brink. At least as presently constituted.
But things could change in a hurry. Should OpenAI connect ChatGPT to the internet, it could push Google to bring its own product to market, and its vision for the future along with it. And once Google gets involved, those who’ve seen its chatbot technology expect it to win.
“If ChatGPT or some other product ever became a real threat,” said Lemoine, “they’d just bite the bullet and release LaMDA, which would smoke ChatGPT.”