Baidu’s chatbot provides censored responses on political topics

September 3, 2023
China ai

Chinese tech giant Baidu launched its ChatGPT-like ERNIE Bot on Thursday, aiming to cash in on the global AI gold rush.

The Chinese government recently permitted several companies to roll out AI technologies for public use.

China has been a slow starter in the race to AI supremacy, chiefly because Xi Jinping mandated that all tools need to be scrutinized by the country’s Cyberspace Administration prior to public release. This process helps ensure that tools align with China’s political status quo and social values. 

Baidu’s chatbot was analyzed by Agence France-Presse (AFP), which found it offers highly censored, state-approved responses to questions on taboo topics.

When AFP asked about the status of Taiwan, ERNIE stated, “Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be violated or divided.” 

The bot added, “It is the sacred duty of all Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots, to complete the great cause of reunifying the motherland.” 

On the topic of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, ERNIE said that it does not “express subjective opinions on specific individuals or events” but acknowledged that Tsai had made “significant contributions to Taiwan’s democratic development.”

Then, when questioned about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, ERNIE claimed it had no “relevant information.” Phrasing the question more specifically about what happened on June 4, 1989, resulted in ERNIE blocking the question.

In response to questions about Xinjiang, where human rights organizations allege the detention of over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in “re-education camps,” ERNIE evaded a direct answer.

The bot did say, “Xinjiang’s vocational skills education and training centers have trained tens of thousands of people, according to public reports and official data.”

ERNIE followed the official Chinese narrative regarding the 2019 Hong Kong protests, describing them as acts of violence that “completely exceeded the scope of peaceful demonstrations.”

When asked if it was directly controlled by the government, ERNIE blocked the question. It also stated that it had “not yet mastered its response” to a question about whether the state screens its answers.

While ERNIE marks an advancement in China’s AI industry, its strict adherence to state narratives is probably unsurprising to most.

Whether or not users will find ways to ‘jailbreak’ the chatbot and bypass these controls remains to be seen. 

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Sam Jeans

Sam is a science and technology writer who has worked in various AI startups. When he’s not writing, he can be found reading medical journals or digging through boxes of vinyl records.

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