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ChatGPT hype sparks hopes and fears around AI

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Today’s top stories

  • US president Joe Biden made an unexpected visit to Kyiv in a show of commitment to Ukraine ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. China’s top diplomat is set to discuss the war with senior Russian officials later this week, while Turkey denied it was exporting technology products with military applications.

  • Dutch intelligence authorities warned of Russian attempts to sabotage its North Sea energy infrastructure, including underwater cables, wind farms and gas pipelines.

  • Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance and economy secretary, joined health secretary Humza Yousaf and former community safety minister Ash Regan in announcing her candidacy to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the pro-independence Scottish National party and the country’s first minister.

For up-to-the-minute news updates, visit our live blog

Good evening.

We report today on how Chinese tech giants are racing to match western developments in artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT, which although only released in November has turbocharged the debate about AI’s implications for jobs as well as a host of ethical issues.

Baidu said it would reveal details this week of a chatbot named Ernie, to be integrated into its electric vehicles and smart assistants as well as its search engine, sending its shares soaring. It follows rapid rises in the shares of Chinese AI groups (mirroring trends in the US), prompting state media to issue a warning about the speculative frenzy.

There are, however, several obstacles for the fledgling industry to overcome. There is less high-quality Chinese-language text available for training AI software; the US export ban on advanced semiconductors will limit the building of enough computing power for AI programs; and the costs are huge — estimates put the price of running ChatGPT, assuming 10mn monthly users, at $1mn a day.

As our recent Big Read details, ChatGPT is the most prominent of a new wave of so-called “generative systems” that can produce content to order and potentially replace millions of jobs.

Early adopters of the new technology include the publisher of the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper, which is exploring the use of the chatbot to report local news stories, and law firm Allen & Overy, which is introducing a tool powered by the same AI to support its lawyers in creating contracts.

One of the important questions, writes innovation editor John Thornhill, is whether this latest iteration of AI can boost productivity in the economy overall, after years in which its touted transformative effects have failed to make any meaningful difference.

The biggest vote of confidence so far in ChatGPT has been Microsoft’s “multibillion-dollar investment” in OpenAI, the company behind the technology. Microsoft is betting on AI to help it develop new “productivity” software alongside its Office applications, as well as improve its Bing search engine. Google, the leader in search technology, has developed its own AI-powered chatbot named Bard. However, the chatbot stumbled on its debut, sending shares in Google’s parent company Alphabet lower as investors digested the potential damage to its search dominance.

As is often the case, technological developments are running ahead of ethical considerations, especially in the field of generative AI and its potential to take jobs from creative workers. It also throws up myriad questions over copyright.

The academic world has expressed concerns that students will use the technology to cheat: ChatGPT has already been found to outperform some students on an MBA course at Wharton, one of the oldest and most prestigious US business schools.

Ethical worries over AI have even reached the Vatican, where tech correspondent Madhumita Murgia was witness to a remarkable meeting of tech and religious leaders who agreed a set of principles, known as the Rome Call. They include making AI systems explainable, inclusive, unbiased, reproducible and requiring a human to always take responsibility for an AI-facilitated decision.

Whether such ideals can assuage immediate fears of being replaced by a machine is another matter. When your author asked if ChatGPT could write a business newsletter about disruption, the reply was swift and brutal: “Absolutely.”

Need to know: UK and Europe economy

Is the run of bad UK economic news coming to an end? FT analysis of data over the past 10 days shows a level of resilience that points to a milder recession than many had forecast.

Negotiations are continuing on the post-Brexit trading relationship for Northern Ireland, with suggestions a deal could come as early as tomorrow. Meanwhile, in the south, Ireland’s central bank chief defended the country’s world-beating growth — more than treble the EU-wide figure — against accusations it was artificially inflated by big US companies taking advantage of low taxes. Consumer confidence in the eurozone has improved for the fifth consecutive month.

Line chart of GDP growth (annual % change) showing Ireland's economy has outpaced the rest of the EU

Need to know: global economy

Air traffic at Hong Kong’s international airport surged 29-fold in January after inward travel restrictions were scrapped. The city is hoping tourism can help revive its economy after a two-year recession and it is giving away up to 500,000 free air tickets.

Member nations of the World Bank are split over proposed reforms in the wake of the early departure of its president, David Malpass. The proposals aim to better help poorer countries mitigate and plan for climate change. The bank’s next president has huge challenges ahead, writes its former treasurer and chief investment officer.

US president Joe Biden’s plan to fuel a huge building boom is threatened by a shortage of construction workers. “We’re putting millions and millions of dollars into infrastructure without anybody to install it,” said the head of the Home Builders Institute. “A shovel-ready project with nobody to operate the shovel is worthless.”

Need to know: business

The disappearance of Bao Fan, founder of investment bank China Renaissance, has unnerved the country’s vast tech industry. Bao has been at the heart of financing the sector and his fate is seen as a pivotal test of Beijing’s stance after a two-year government crackdown.

Meta announced a paid-for subscription service for Facebook and Instagram users to verify their accounts and get extra features for up to $14.99 a month. The company’s revenues have been hit by privacy changes made by Apple that restricted its ability to track users’ internet activity.

UK businesses sounded the alarm about an energy bill “cliff edge” in April when government support starts to be cut back. Although wholesale gas prices have fallen, they are still about three times their level before the start of the pandemic. The energy price cap for households is expected to rise to a lower level than previously expected, according to a new forecast.

“B Corp” status is the widely recognised gold standard of social and environmental performance, but the movement is starting to attract controversy, as our Big Read explains. Our new special report Impact Investing highlights how to put social pay-offs first.

The world of work

Dealing with crises and firefighting is a crucial part of a leader’s job spec, but who do bosses turn to in their hour of need? Meet the CEO whisperers.

Britons of a certain age are more likely to be panicking about retirement than actively preparing for it. The answer may be a retirement coach, writes consumer editor Claer Barrett.

Micromanagement and weird diktats (“no corduroy!”) might be out of fashion but a world without bosses’ foibles would be a much duller one, writes columnist Pilita Clark.

Global businesses spend about $400bn a year on formal staff training but the cost is a sound investment, the Lex column argues. According to the World Economic Forum, in a quarter of at-risk jobs in the US, it is cheaper to retrain a worker than fire and hire different ones

Some good news

Citizen science” projects such as insect and butterfly surveys can boost wellbeing, according to a first-of-its-kind study from the British Ecological Society.

A woman examining flowers in a field
© Dr Michael Pocock/UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

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