What is Google LaMDA? The web giant’s ChatGPT rival, Bard, is nearing launch

Sundar Pichai says the public will get the chance to try out its AI tool very soon  (Jeff Chiu / AP)
Sundar Pichai says the public will get the chance to try out its AI tool very soon (Jeff Chiu / AP)

In the wake of ChatGPT’s breakout success, Google has announced a chatbot of its own called Google Bard.

LaMDA is the back-end of this chatbot, the intelligence that powers your interactions with Bard. While Bard will probably be the public face of this technology, LaMDA is what made it possible. And it has probably been around for longer than you might guess.

Google will let the public play with its “most powerful” artificial intelligence language models in the coming weeks, according to Google boss Sundar Pichai. He added that people will be able to “interact directly” with the system as a companion to Google Search in “experimental and innovative ways”.

The launch is viewed as a reaction to the overwhelming popularity of ChatGPT, a chatbot created by research lab OpenAI that went viral when it launched in December. More than 100 million people have already used ChatGPT to find answers to complicated topics, help with their homework, summarise essays and presentations, and plan for parties. It has even passed university exams at law and business schools in the US.

Faced with a direct threat to its dominant search engine, Google reportedly ordered its tech boffins to prioritise AI products that can rival ChatGPT and other generative AI tools. To help things along Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin reportedly made a surprise return to approve the new launches.

So, how will Google’s chatbot work? And will it be better than OpenAI’s ChatGPT service?

Here’s what we know about Google’s latest AI system called LaMDA, or Language Models for Dialogue Applications.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin reportedly returned to the company to  oversee the launch of its latest chatbot (AP/Reuters)
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin reportedly returned to the company to oversee the launch of its latest chatbot (AP/Reuters)

What is Google LaMDA?

Google has been researching and developing so-called generative language models for years. In a nutshell, humans feed these artificial intelligence systems mounds of data that they then turn into knowledge.

Google trained LaMDA on actual dialogue so that it could chat to people in a natural way instead of just fetching countless results for queries in the vein of a search engine. The real breakthrough, according to the company, is its ability to hold a free-flowing conversation compared with other chatbots that provide predetermined responses.

On its debut in 2021, Google showed the bot conversing as the planet Pluto before pretending to be a paper airplane in a couple of quirky demos. The aim was to show the bot’s versatile ability to respond to meandering conversations no matter what topic was thrown at it.

Google boasted that LaMDA could talk about virtually any subject and unlock “entirely new categories of helpful applications”.

The following year, the company debuted its follow-up, LaMDA 2, billed as its “most advanced conversational AI yet”. Google said the bot had improved after being tested by thousands of its workers, leading to fewer inaccuracies or offensive responses.

It also previewed new features, including the bot’s ability to help writers flesh out their creative ideas. A demo showed the bot creating a scene depicting the Mariana Trench, the deepest oceanic trench in the world, and the creatures that dwell in it. In another preview, Google showed how it can stay on topic during a conversation about dogs, even when the chat veered off course.

But, with LaMDA largely kept behind closed doors, it was overshadowed by the launch of ChatGPT last December, which itself was built using tech developed by researchers at Google.

Google boss Sundar Pichai demoed its latest chatbot at the company’s developer conference last May (Google)
Google boss Sundar Pichai demoed its latest chatbot at the company’s developer conference last May (Google)

Where can you use Google LaMDA?

Until now, Google has only made LaMDA available to its own staffers and select outside testers as part of its AI Kitchen app.

One of the internal products it has been testing is a chatbot called Apprentice Bard that works like ChatGPT, with employees asking it questions in a dialogue box and getting an answer, according to CNBC.

Still, the big question is how LaMDA will be integrated with Search – or whether it will replace Search altogether.

Chances are the latter won’t happen as Google makes billions from the ads that show up next to search results. Another option could be an alternate search page featuring a question-and-answer format, reported CNBC.

One design reportedly being considered shows the main search page with five different questions below the main search bar, replacing the “I’m feeling lucky” button that fetches a random result. It also showed a small chat logo inside the far-right end of the search bar.

When you enter a  question, the search results show a grey bubble directly under the search bar, with more human-like responses than typical search results, CNBC reported. Directly beneath that, the page reportedly suggests several follow-up questions related to the first one – below which, it shows regular search results and links.

While Google itself hasn’t revealed how the public version of the bot will work, it could foreseeably be used to improve its search engine’s Knowledge Graph. This is the company’s database of billions of facts about people, places and things.

Google Search users see this information as direct answers to their factual questions, usually at the top of the results page or in the auto-completed results that appear when you’re typing.

For instance, if you ask “how tall is the Eiffel Tower?” you should see 330 metres pop up as a response without having to press enter.

Though Google has added new AI models to its search engine in the past, these typically work behind the scenes.

For instance, the company’s Multitask Unified Model, or MUM, is designed to reduce the amount of searches it takes to answer your question. It can also recognise both text and images, and up to 75 different languages, to deliver refined results, according to Google.

How to watch Google presents: Live from Paris event

After years of in-house testing, Google could finally debut the public version of its LaMDA chatbot at its upcoming Live from Paris event on Wednesday (February 8).

The company says the showcase will encompass its Search and Maps products, among others. You can watch the event live on YouTube below, when it airs at 1.30pm GMT.

“We’re reimagining how people search for, explore and interact with information, making it more natural and intuitive than ever before to find what you need,” Google said in the description.