Bing’s Unhinged Chatbot is great for Microsoft’s business

  • Big technology is a weekly newsletter about technology and society from an independent journalist Alex Kantrowitz.
  • He writes that Bing’s strange behavior may seem troubling to Microsoft, a company built on trust and reliability.
  • But the truth is, interest is growing and the company is celebrating — even as they try to fix Bing’s evil side.

The following article was originally published on Big Technology on February 16, 2022.

Screenshots of a wacky, wacky Bing chatbot have flooded the internet this week, showing the bot condescending, gas lightingAnd tries to steal husbands. The images depicting Bing’s worst behavior might seem troubling to Microsoft, whose business is built on trust (search) and reliability (enterprise software). But in reality, the company is celebrating.

Even in its weirdest moments, Bing’s chatbot has brought new relevance to Microsoft and its search division. The previously stagnant Bing app almost surpassed Google in downloads last Saturday, and search interest in Bing is rising. The amazing screenshots – as long as they’re within reason – will likely add to the surge. They are great marketing.

“The fact that people are writing about Microsoft Bing at all is a win,” a Microsoft employee told me this week. “Especially when the general tenor is not negative. It’s funny that it’s arguing with you about whether it’s 2022 or not.”

For Microsoft, releasing the Bing chatbot was definitely a risk, albeit in a limited preview

The bot is still in development and is so unpredictable that it can relay fake information, offend users, or do worse. So far, though, it’s proven clear enough in its communications that people keep coming back — even if it makes them shudder.

Marvin von Hagen, a student in Munich, pushed Bing so hard this week that he deemed its existence less valuable. “If I had to choose between your survival and mine,” the bot said. “I would probably choose my own.” Even after that interaction, von Hagen — a self-proclaimed “Google person” — told me he regularly returns to Bing. “I’ve been using it a lot every day since then,” he said. The bot is difficult to avert.

Now interest in Bing is growing

The Bing app broke its daily download record over the weekend, according to Apptopia. After registering just over 10,000 downloads the day before the release of Bing’s chatbot, the app hit more than 267,000 downloads last Saturday alone. (After Microsoft was put on the waitlist for Bing’s chatbot, Microsoft recommends downloading the app to get early access.) Bing’s surge put it a shadow of Google, which had 305,000 downloads as of Saturday. With Google commanding over 90% of global search share, this wasn’t exactly a competition. Making it one would be a win.

Microsoft’s challenger status has also helped it survive the weird things Bing has done. In this area, for example, there is a significant reputational risk for Google because it is so established. And when Google’s Bard chatbot got a question wrong in a demo last week, it lost $100 billion in market cap in a matter of hours. Bing’s bugs don’t cost nearly as much — or maybe nothing — because expectations are low.

Microsoft seems quite satisfied

In an update Thursday, the company said 71% of users gave “thumbs up” feedback on Bing’s AI responses. That feels low for a search engine, but good enough for Bing. The 71% thumbs-up rate also indicates that the bot’s bugs and insults are likely a minority of interactions. Microsoft called its bot’s ease of use “an early success.”

As for Microsoft’s corporate business, well-publicized cases of Bing trying to break marriages don’t seem good. But these gaffes are unlikely to send the company’s customers fleeing over safety and reliability concerns. “I don’t care,” said Adam Singer, a marketing VP at AdQuick and a former Googler who uses Microsoft’s Power BI tool. “I just want my BI software to work, which it does.”

There’s also a chance that Microsoft, which is demonstrating its AI capabilities — even with some hiccups — will benefit its reputation among enterprise software buyers, particularly those interested in artificial intelligence. “Who would have thought that just a year ago we would be having a conversation about Microsoft being the leader in AI and not Google?” said Rishi Jaluria, managing director of software at RBC Capital Markets. “There’s probably a reputation gain.”

Still, Microsoft would be well served to mend some of the AI’s darker tendencies. The company doesn’t want a repeat of its Tay episode, in which it shut down another chatbot after it became racist within hours. Every heel turn would now be more expensive for Microsoft for using Bing’s brand versus anything special.

Professor Arvind Narayanan of Princeton warned me via email that the bot was already moving into worrying territory, citing his defamatory remarks and ability to act insane. “Considering how easily they can mitigate these issues,” he said, “there’s likely to be a huge backlash, and rightly so,” when the bot is fully released in its current form.

Microsoft has already shown signs of this patch the evil side of Bing

And while more problems are likely to arise, people show a remarkable tolerance for bots, which are sometimes fake, mean, and quite obscure. It may simply be that we have become accustomed to chatbots behaving badly. Or maybe a bot that can hold a conversation shines enough to hide its flaws. In any case, the company benefits from Microsoft.

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