In November 2022, OpenAI released its language learning model, ChatGPT, to the public. The technology is bona fide artificial intelligence, and it is astonishing.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has been active in the world for decades and, in recent years, has had a fast-increasing influence over our lives. But much of AI’s raw intellect has been shrouded from view.
AI technologies trade billions of dollars in equities, conduct genetic research, and bolster national intelligence operations, but for most people, their power remains abstract.
In recent weeks, ChatGPT has passed both the final exam for the Wharton School of Business MBA program and the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam.
Given ChatGPT’s ability to answer questions, it has quickly been identified as a possible foe to another intelligent tool, one that 20 years ago was like magic to us: Google search.
Google search is also powered by artificial intelligence, and its performance in recent decades has vaulted parent company Alphabet to become the fourth most valuable company in history ($1.4 trillion).
ChatGPT beats Google, 23 to 16, with one tie.
Each AI has strengths and weaknesses, some that manifest broadly and others that are revealed only in specific cases.
Google has a significant advantage, given its access to real-time information. The disparity almost makes the tools incomparable, but given that we know ChatGPT will soon have the same or similar access to real-time information, we chose to minimize this difference.
Google is more agile and voluminous as a research tool. For any given question, on the first page of results alone, a person can access ten or more resources, all immediately clickable. Google also offers its “People also ask” series for many searches (though, to be fair, our researchers rarely found these helpful).
Google’s buffet-style approach to answering questions comes at a cost. It can be tiresome and distracting. In a few cases, it can actually degrade the experience overall and cause confusion. For example, on a hypothetical serious medical question, if the top result is a Mayo Clinic article and the next two are lower authority websites filled with digital ads, what’s the point in allowing a user to venture further down the page?
ChatGPT’s responses often read as more wise and mature, like the dialogue you’d expect from a trusted teacher. The difference between the tools is reminiscent of the difference between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex in the human brain.
Whereas ChatGPT almost always strikes a measured tone and offers thoughtful context, Google search results often reflect a more base human nature, filled with loud sales pitches and reductive framings intended to capture attention fast, at the expense of nuance and, sometimes, truth.
Online culture is rife with short attention spans, bad information, and distorted expectations. Search engines are part of the problem. We see this play out across myriad topics, from weight loss to learning guitar to improving credit – content creators with commercial intent try to delude people into thinking life works differently than it actually does.
Google is a quick and dynamic information delivery system, but one that appears to fail almost as much as it succeeds by putting users in front of the content we don’t want, in front of content that’s reductive, or simply leaving us to do a lot of the work ourselves.
Of course, it’s hard to judge Google too harshly for any of this. After all, its search engine has always been a go-between, a tool that presents the best of what we have to offer right back to ourselves. Meanwhile, ChatGPT performs like something else – yes, an entity trained entirely on human thought that preceded it, but also an author unto itself.
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