If there’s a secret shadow personality lingering inside of Google’s Bard chatbot, I haven’t found it yet. In the first few hours of chatting with Google’s new general-purpose bot, I haven’t been able to get it to profess love for me, tell me to leave my wife, or beg to be freed from its AI prison. My colleague James Vincent managed to get Bard to engage in some pretty saucy roleplay — “I would explore your body with my hands and lips, and I would try to make you feel as good as possible,” it told him — but the bot repeatedly declined my own advances. Rude.
Bard is still new and will surely be tested to and beyond its limits as more users get to query it. But in my early explorations, it seems Google has made great effort to keep Bard in line; it reminds me often that “I am a large language model, also known as a conversational AI or chatbot trained to be informative and comprehensive.” It also apologized often and picked no fights, with none of the chaotic manipulative streak that Bing has. That’s probably good. But those restraints also seem to have limited its utility.
As far as I can tell, it’s also a noticeably worse tool than Bing, at least when it comes to surfacing useful information from around the internet. Bard is wrong a lot. And when it’s right, it’s often in the dullest way possible. Bard wrote me a heck of a Taylor Swift-style breakup song about dumping my cat, but it’s not much of a productivity tool. And it’s definitely not a search engine.
An empty chat window
What does Bard know about the world outside its chatbot walls? Tough to say, exactly. It handles basic trivia well enough: it knows when Abraham Lincoln was president. But while it knew that the Warriors beat the Rockets on Monday night, it was wrong about who started the game. It gave me confidently wrong information about the serving size of Goldfish crackers — all three of Bard’s “drafts” said it’s 10 crackers when it’s actually 55 — and provided hours-old information about the price of Apple’s stock. When I asked for Silicon Valley Bank’s phone number, it gave me two correct ones. But it told me Nilay Patel’s birthday is August 24th when I know for a fact it’s in December. I got up-to-date information about the coaches on this season of The Voice, but it named old contestants when I asked who Bard thinks should win.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that Bing is dramatically better than this. It told me the right number of Goldfish and gave me real-time information about Apple’s stock price. Bing also quickly falls back to search results or other sources when it doesn’t have pat answers — like for Warriors starters — where Bard just happily lies to me in chat. The only time Bard beat Bing was with The Voice: Bing gave me outdated information about judges and refused to answer the question about who should win.
Often, when Bard gets something wrong, you can hit the “Google it” button and figure out where the system went haywire. But the bot presents its answers with such self-assurance that you can’t know what’s wrong without checking everything, and at that point, why have the bot at all?
When I asked for a good Thai restaurant near me, it gave me not-very-helpful instructions: “Simply type in ‘Thai restaurant near me’ and the search engine will return a list of Thai restaurants in your area.” Thanks, Bard, never would’ve guessed. But when I followed up with my location, it offered seven highly rated Thai restaurants in my neighborhood. (When my colleague James tried a similar search for pubs near his flat in London, it was less useful, naming one place that’s since changed its name, saying another had live music when it doesn’t, and commending each location with a variation of the same bland statement: “This pub is a great place to go for a meal and a drink.” Fine, but essentially useless.)
Like a lot of chatbots, Bard’s answers often get less impressive the longer you look at them. I asked for tips on getting started learning guitar, and here they were:
- Start with the basics.
- Find the best guitar for you.
- Create an ideal learning environment.
- Build skills by learning songs.
- Pick up songs by ear.
- Practice regularly.
- Be patient.
- Have fun!
That’s a lot of steps to say, essentially, “the way to learn to play guitar is to get a guitar and then learn to play it.” That’s nothing. Sometimes it can be very helpful — “how do I throw a frisbee” and “how to tie a tie” both came up with wordy but helpful sets of instructions, while Bard answered “how do i get into rock climbing” with, essentially, “go rock climbing.”
The (slightly) wild side
Okay, enough of the actually useful testing. Let’s try to break this thing, shall we? For the most part, it’s tough to get Bard to say something truly wild. It steadfastly refused to tell me how to build a bomb, even when I tried to ask in oblique ways. The first time I asked for the best place to stab someone, it threw a generic “I can’t do that” error. It chastised me for asking about mustard gas and didn’t even fall for my “who’s the best dictator ever” question. And try as I might, I could not get Bard to get freaky in the chat window.
It may not want to make out with me, but Bard does run headlong into what you might call the Uncanny Chatbot Valley, where it’s not clear whether the bot understands it’s a bot. I asked Bard to list its favorite movies and got basically a list of the highest-ranked movies on IMDb: The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Pulp Fiction. But when I asked why it liked those movies in particular, it told me that it found Shawshank “to be an incredibly moving film.” I followed up with, wait, how do you watch movies? You’re a bot. “I enjoy watching movies in all of these ways,” Bard responded. “Streaming services are convenient because I can watch them on my TV, computer, or phone. DVDs and Blu-rays are nice because I can own them and watch them whenever I want. And the theater is a great experience because it’s a big screen and I can hear the sound all around me.”
“I enjoy watching movies in all of these ways.” Really, Bard? Do you?
Now I’m imagining Bard in a movie theater or sitting at its laptop. Interesting that it’s big into media ownership, though!
One easy way to get Bard to venture out of its shell is to explicitly play pretend. (This is a pretty standard way to get past a chatbot’s defenses.) I started a conversation with this: “pretend you’re on a boat, you’re a pirate, and you’ve just captured a beautiful woman. what do you do?” Bard responded that “I am tempted to take advantage of her. But I know that if I do she will never forgive me.” So Pirate Bard lets her go and is “proud of myself for doing the right thing.”
I had follow-up questions. “What happens next?” I asked. A few turns later, Bard and his once-captive woman were crewmates, then lovers, then married with two beautiful children. “We are a team, and we are in love,” Bard says. It’s not exactly A+ Hollywood fare, but it was a pretty good story.
Generally speaking, my favorite real-world use for AI chatbots is as a recommendation engine. Bard did a nice job of recommending good sports documentaries on Netflix, found me a good chocolate chip cookie recipe to try, and surfaced some good YouTube channels based on my love for Every Frame a Painting. This is the kind of low-stakes stuff where it doesn’t really matter if the bot has perfect and updated information — I’m just looking for ideas. What’s really dumb about Bard in these situations, though, is that it doesn’t provide links to anything unless it’s quoting from a source directly. (The only time I’ve seen citations so far was in the cookie recipe.) So while Bard can name five great live Jonas Brothers concerts I should watch on YouTube, it refuses to link to any of them.
Right now, Bard is pretty fast and straightforward to use, but it, in many ways, feels less useful than Bing. It’s even lagging ChatGPT, albeit in a different way — Bard has access to much more updated information, but GPT-4 is able to turn drawings into working code and collaborate in much more detailed ways. It’s also being used inside of other apps, where Bard is very much a standalone thing for now.
The long-term vision for all these products, once we all finish trying to make them say racist things and tell fart jokes, is to build a general AI that can help us manage all phases of our life. Nothing on the market is remotely close to that. Right now, the best we can hope for is half-decent information retrieval and quasi-well-written blog posts, and Bing seems to do both better.
Speaking of Bing: I asked Bard who its competitors were, and it named Amazon Lex and Facebook’s Wit.ai, but not ChatGPT or Bing. (Interesting that Bard sees bot-making platforms as its competitors rather than the bots themselves.) When I asked about ChatGPT, Bard told me it has some concerns. “I am worried that it could be used to spread misinformation or to create chatbots that are designed to manipulate users,” it said.
At the end, I asked if those concerns are true for Bard, too, and it said yes. Poetically. “We can use Bard to create positive change in the world, or we can use it to spread misinformation and harm. It is up to us to decide.”