Senior Microsoft executives recently unveiled plans to use AI capabilities to improve its struggling online search engine Bing, and its internet browser Edge.
It's hoping to offer more competition to market leader Google's Search function and Chrome web browser.
The announcement comes as the new artificial intelligence writing program ChatGPT enjoys widespread public attention following its launch last November.
Microsoft had been a partner and 9% stakeholder of the OpenAI non-profit that created ChatGPT since 2019, but in late January it made another major investment in the group — reportedly as much as $10 billion (roughly €9.3 billion) — to increase that presence.
Its redoubled interest in OpenAI is thought to be a bid to counter some of the wider research operations of Google's Alphabet Inc. parent company.
"This technology is going to reshape pretty much every software category," Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella told reporters at the company's headquarters in Redmond in the northwestern US state of Washington.
What might the benefits or changes be?
Microsoft said that a preview of the new Bing engine is already available for desktop users who sign up personally, and should be available to all on mobile devices in a matter of months.
Microsoft's Consumer Chief Marketing Officer Yusuf Mehdi called the revamped Bing "your AI-powered robot for the web." He said Bing would be run on a new, next-generation "large language model" that is more powerful than ChatGPT.
Generative AI programs, including ChatGPT for the written word, can create all manner of images or texts on a range of topics at speed — based on collating a wealth of written and pictorial sources such as books, newspaper articles, encyclopedia entries, instruction manuals and other inputs.
In the case of a search engine, it might for example be able to compose a concise answer in plain language to a user's question itself, rather than providing a selection of the links it deems most pertinent to the query as at present.
The platform might also be able to help with simple online writing tasks, such as composing emails. Another proposed scenario was asking the software for lunch tips based on what ingredients remained in the user's fridge.
There may also be implications for shopping online. Microsoft gave an example in its demonstration of the search engine, calculating whether a new couch would fit in the back of a user's car if they ordered it for pick-up, based on the known dimensions of the vehicle and the furniture.
Microsoft's Mehdi also argued that putting this technology into broad public use could help speed up AI improvement and development, and make it more practically useful for people more quickly.
He said it was important to develop AI "with human preferences and societal norms, and you're not going to do that in a lab. You have to do that out in the world."
And the drawbacks?
ChatGPT users have observed that while the program's mastery of grammar and language is difficult to reproach, the factual accuracy and logical consistency of some of its texts are not always as assured.
And although more potentially user-friendly and accessible, providing answers rather than relevant links could make its sourcing decisions more opaque for users. That said, Bing does plan to provide users with annotations linking directly to sources.
The change might also have implications for advertising revenue, market leader Google's main source of income, generated by search engines online.
For now, much of that business model is monetized when users click on recommended material after entering a search, something this software might one day render less common.
Google's own 'Bard' plan is also in the works
Microsoft's moves in recent weeks have not gone unnoticed by Google, which until recently had been hesitant about bringing its AI research at Alphabet Inc. into its web products like Search.
On Monday Google unveiled a chatbot of its own called Bard, while it is planning to release AI for its search engine that can synthesize material when no simple answer exists online.
Chinese internet and AI-focused giant Baidu is making comparable plans as well.
Public interest in the field has arguably increased in the last year, both because of ChatGPT and before that another OpenAI program, Dall-E-2, which can generate images based on a simple written brief.