Alphabet Chairman John Hennessy explains why Google was hesitant to put out its ChatGPT competitor

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John Hennessy
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Google‘s Bard announcement last week was meant to show that the company has similar technology as the popular ChatGPT chatbot, even though it still has a ways to go before becoming product-ready, Alphabet Chairman John Hennessy said Monday.

“I think Google was hesitant to productize this because it didn’t think it was really ready for a product yet, but, I think, as a demonstration vehicle, it’s a great piece of technology,” said Hennessy, who has been the chairman of the Google parent company since 2018. He went on to say that he thinks generative artificial intelligence is still one to two years away from being a truly useful tool for the broader public.

Hennessy was speaking at a summit held by venture firm Celesta Capital in Mountain View, California. Hennessy has a long history in tech, including as a professor, researcher and company founder, and he also served as the president of Stanford University from 2000 to 2016.

Hennessy, who spoke on key trends for 2023, briefly touched on Google being caught in the sudden onrush of interest in ChatGPT and generative AI. 

Last week, the company launched its response to ChatGPT in a conversation technology it is calling Bard. However, the announcement had the appearance of being rushed to match Microsoft’s inclusion of ChatGPT technology into its search engine, Bing, and investors punished Alphabet stock, sending it down 9% for the day.

Hennessy said Google was slow to roll out its ChatGPT competitor in part because it’s still giving wrong answers. Google is among the most-used consumer products, and entities like YouTube and Search have sometimes provided inaccurate information in the past.

That past, it seems, is inspiring caution at the company.

“You don’t want to put a system out that either says wrong things or sometimes says toxic things,” Hennessy said during the conference, echoing CEO Sundar Pichai’s response in December when employees asked if the company was falling behind ChatGPT. The tech industry has to be “a little more careful about the situation we create in civil society,” he acknowledged.

“I think these models are still in the early days — figuring out how to bring them into a product stream and do it in a way that’s sensitive to correctness, as well as issues like toxicity,” Hennessey told CNBC on Monday. “I think the industry is struggling with that.”

He added, “I don’t think Vint anticipated that people would use the internet to do evil things,” referring to Google executive Vint Cerf, who was one of the early developers of the internet’s underlying technology.

“I’m from the age where, if you spam somebody, you were a social pariah. Now, I get 10 spam messages for every real message, so the world has changed, and we’ve got to think about what role technology has in ensuring that we have a functioning democracy, we have people who can live together and work together, we don’t have hatred or some of these other toxic things. I think we really do need to work on that.”

Hennessy added that he’s been impressed with ChatGPT’s abilities, and that it is moving faster than he anticipated.

“I’m impressed with two things — first of all the quality of the natural language ability both to interpret a query but also to respond to something — the generative function. I’m impressed that it manages to, at least at a fairly superficial level, get a lot of things right.”

He declined to comment specifically on the public’s reaction to Google’s Bard announcement last week.

Hennessy later said it’s a good time for startups in Silicon Valley that can benefit from recruiting talent from Big Tech during the current cycle of layoffs.

“Startups have such an important role to play in the valley,” he said. “One of the great things about the valley is you cannot rest on your laurels because some new startup will come along and really give you a run for your money.”