SAN FRANCISCO — When Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, tried a new A.I. chatbot called ChatGPT in early December, it didn’t take him long to declare, “We need people on this!”
He cleared his calendar and asked employees to figure out how the technology, which instantly provides comprehensive answers to complex questions, could benefit Box, a cloud computing company that sells services that help businesses manage their online data.
Mr. Levie’s reaction to ChatGPT was typical of the anxiety — and excitement — over Silicon Valley’s new new thing. Chatbots have ignited a scramble to determine whether their technology could upend the economics of the internet, turn today’s powerhouses into has-beens or create the industry’s next giants.
Not since the iPhone has the belief that a new technology could change the industry run so deep. Cloud computing companies are rushing to deliver chatbot tools, even as they worry that the technology will gut other parts of their businesses. E-commerce outfits are dreaming of new ways to sell things. Social media platforms are being flooded with posts written by bots. And publishing companies are fretting that even more dollars will be squeezed out of digital advertising.
The volatility of chatbots has made it impossible to predict their impact. In one second, the systems impress by fielding a complex request for a five-day itinerary, making Google’s search engine look archaic. A moment later, they disturb by taking conversations in dark directions and launching verbal assaults.
The result is an industry gripped with the question: What do we do now?
“Everybody is agitated,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. “There’s a lot of value to be won or lost.”
Rarely have so many tech sectors been simultaneously exposed. The A.I. systems could disrupt $100 billion in cloud spending, $500 billion in digital advertising and $5.4 trillion in e-commerce sales, according to totals from IDC, a market research firm, and GroupM, a media agency.
Google, perhaps more than any other company, has reason to both love and hate the chatbots. It has declared a “code red” because their abilities could be a blow to its $162 billion business showing ads on searches.
But Google’s cloud computing business could be a big winner. Smaller companies like Box need help building chatbot tools, so they are turning to the giants that process, store and manage information across the web. Those companies — Google, Microsoft and Amazon — are in a race to provide businesses with the software and substantial computing power behind their A.I. chatbots.
“The cloud computing providers have gone all in on A.I. over the last few months,” said Clément Delangue, head of the A.I. company Hugging Face, which helps run open-source projects similar to ChatGPT. “They are realizing that in a few years, most of the spending will be on A.I., so it is important for them to make big bets.”
When Microsoft introduced a chatbot-equipped Bing search engine last month, Yusuf Mehdi, the head of Bing, said the company was wrestling with how the new version would make money. Advertising will be a major driver, he said, but the company expects fewer ads than traditional search allows.
“We’re going to learn that as we go,” Mr. Mehdi said.
As Microsoft figures out a chatbot business model, it is forging ahead with plans to sell the technology to others. It charges $10 a month for a cloud service, built in conjunction with the OpenAI lab, that provides developers with coding suggestions, among other things.
Google has similar ambitions for its A.I. technology. After introducing its Bard chatbot last month, the company said its cloud customers would be able to tap into that underlying system for their own businesses.
But Google has not yet begun exploring how to make money from Bard itself, said Dan Taylor, a company vice president of global ads. It considers the technology “experimental,” he said, and is focused on using the so-called large language models that power chatbots to improve traditional search.
“The discourse on A.I. is rather narrow and focused on text and the chat experience,” Mr. Taylor said. “Our vision for search is about understanding information and all its forms: language, images, video, navigating the real world.”
Sridhar Ramaswamy, who led Google’s advertising division from 2013 to 2018, said Microsoft and Google recognized that their current search business might not survive. “The wall of ads and sea of blue links is a thing of the past,” said Mr. Ramaswamy, who now runs Neeva, a subscription-based search engine.
Amazon, which has a larger share of the cloud market than Microsoft and Google combined, has not been as public in its chatbot pursuit as the other two, though it has been working on A.I. technology for years.
But in January, Andy Jassy, Amazon’s chief executive, corresponded with Mr. Delangue of Hugging Face, and weeks later Amazon expanded a partnership to make it easier to offer Hugging Face’s software to customers.
As that underlying tech, known as generative A.I., becomes more widely available, it could fuel new ideas in e-commerce. Late last year, Manish Chandra, the chief executive of Poshmark, a popular online secondhand store, found himself daydreaming during a long flight from India about chatbots building profiles of people’s tastes, then recommending and buying clothes or electronics. He imagined grocers instantly fulfilling orders for a recipe.
“It becomes your mini-Amazon,” said Mr. Chandra, who has made integrating generative A.I. into Poshmark one of the company’s top priorities over the next three years. “That layer is going to be very powerful and disruptive and start almost a new layer of retail.”
But generative A.I is causing other headaches. In early December, users of Stack Overflow, a popular social network for computer programmers, began posting substandard coding advice written by ChatGPT. Moderators quickly banned A.I.-generated text.
Part of the problem was that people could post this questionable content far faster than they could write posts on their own, said Dennis Soemers, a moderator for the site. “Content generated by ChatGPT looks trustworthy and professional, but often isn’t,” he said.
When websites thrived during the pandemic as traffic from Google surged, Nilay Patel, editor in chief of The Verge, a tech news site, warned publishers that the search giant would one day turn off the spigot. He had seen Facebook stop linking out to websites and foresaw Google following suit in a bid to boost its own business.
He predicted that visitors from Google would drop from a third of websites’ traffic to nothing. He called that day “Google zero.”
“People thought I was crazy,” said Mr. Patel, who redesigned The Verge’s website to protect it. Because chatbots replace website search links with footnotes to answers, he said, many publishers are now asking if his prophecy is coming true.
For the past two months, strategists and engineers at the digital advertising company CafeMedia have met twice a week to contemplate a future where A.I. chatbots replace search engines and squeeze web traffic.
The group recently discussed what websites should do if chatbots lift information but send fewer visitors. One possible solution would be to encourage CafeMedia’s network of 4,200 websites to insert code that limited A.I. companies from taking content, a practice currently allowed because it contributes to search rankings.
“There are a million things to be worried about,” said Paul Bannister, CafeMedia’s chief strategy officer. “You have to figure out what to prioritize.”
Courts are expected to be the ultimate arbiter of content ownership. Last month, Getty Images sued Stability AI, the start-up behind the art generator tool Stable Diffusion, accusing it of unlawfully copying millions of images. The Wall Street Journal has said using its articles to train an A.I. system requires a license.
In the meantime, A.I. companies continue collecting information across the web under the “fair use” doctrine, which permits limited use of material without permission.
“The world is facing a new technology, and the law is groping to find ways of dealing with it,” said Bradley J. Hulbert, a lawyer who specializes in this area. “No one knows where the courts will draw the lines.”
Karen Weise contributed reporting from Seattle.