OpenAI’s Sam Altman answered questions about challenging Google’s search monopoly and reveals that he’d rather entirely change the paradigm of how people get information rather than copy what Google has been doing it for the past twenty+ years.  His observations were made in the context of a podcast interview by Lex Fridman.

What Altman proposed is that the best way to challenge Google is to completely replace its entire business category, including the advertising.

1. Is OpenAI Building A Challenge Google Search?

The discussion began with a question from Fridman asking if it’s true that OpenAI is going to challenge Google.

Lex Fridman asked:

“So is OpenAI going to really take on this thing that Google started 20 years ago, which is how do we get-“

Sam Altman responded that the whole idea of building a better search engine limits what the future of information retrieval can be, calling the current conception of search boring.

Altman answered:

“I find that boring. I mean, if the question is if we can build a better search engine than Google or whatever, then sure, we should go, people should use the better product, but I think that would so understate what this can be. Google shows you 10 blue links, well, 13 ads and then 10 blue links, and that’s one way to find information.

But the thing that’s exciting to me is not that we can go build a better copy of Google search, but that maybe there’s just some much better way to help people find and act on and synthesize information. Actually, I think ChatGPT is that for some use cases, and hopefully we’ll make it be like that for a lot more use cases.”

2. The World Doesn’t Need Another Google

Altman expanded on his thoughts by saying that the idea of creating another Google in order to challenge Google is not interesting. He said that the more interesting path to follow is completely change not just how people get information but to do it in a way that fits into how people are using information.

Altman continued:

“But I don’t think it’s that interesting to say, “How do we go do a better job of giving you 10 ranked webpages to look at than what Google does?”

Maybe it’s really interesting to go say, “How do we help you get the answer or the information you need? How do we help create that in some cases, synthesize that in others, or point you to it in yet others?’

But a lot of people have tried to just make a better search engine than Google and it is a hard technical problem, it is a hard branding problem, it is a hard ecosystem problem. I don’t think the world needs another copy of Google.”

3. AI Search Hasn’t Been Cracked

The part where the conversation seemed fall off the rails is when Fridman steered the discussion over to integrating a chatbot with a search engine, which itself is already done to death and boring. Bing created the chat on top of search experience over a year ago and now there are at least six AI search engines.that integrate a chatbot on top of a traditional search engine.

Fridman’s direction of the discussion threw cold water on what Altman was talking about.

Altman said that nobody has “cracked the code yet,” which implied that repeating what Bing did was not what Sam Altman had in mind. He called it an “example of a cool thing.”

Fridman and Altman continued:

“And integrating a chat client, like a ChatGPT, with a search engine-

Sam Altman
As you might guess, we are interested in how to do that well. That would be an example of a cool thing.

…The intersection of LLMs plus search, I don’t think anyone has cracked the code on yet. I would love to go do that. I think that would be cool.”

4. Advertisement Supported AI Search Is Dystopian

Altman used the word “dystopic” to characterize a world in which AI search was based on an advertising model. Dystopic means dystopian, which means a dehumanizing existence that lacks justice and is characterized by distrust.

He noted that ChatGPT as a subscription-based model can be perceived as more trustworthy as an advertising-based search engine. He raised the idea of an AI suggesting that users try a specific product and questioning whether the recommendation was influenced by advertising or what was best for the user.

That makes sense because there’s a high level of trust involved with AI that doesn’t exist with traditional search. Many consumers don’t trust Google search because, rightly or wrongly, it’s perceived as influenced by advertising and spammy SEO.

Fridman steered the conversation to advertising:

“Lex Fridman
…What about the ad side? Have you ever considered monetization of-

Sam Altman
I kind of hate ads just as an aesthetic choice. I think ads needed to happen on the internet for a bunch of reasons, to get it going, but it’s a momentary industry. The world is richer now.

I like that people pay for ChatGPT and know that the answers they’re getting are not influenced by advertisers.

I’m sure there’s an ad unit that makes sense for LLMs, and I’m sure there’s a way to participate in the transaction stream in an unbiased way that is okay to do, but it’s also easy to think about the dystopic visions of the future where you ask ChatGPT something and it says, “Oh, you should think about buying this product,” or, “You should think about going here for your vacation,” or whatever.”

5. A Search Experience Where The Consumer Is Not The Product

Altman next commented that he didn’t like how consumers are the product when they used social media or search engines. What he means is that user interactions are sold to advertisers who then turn around to target the users based on their interests.

Altman continued:

“And I don’t know, we have a very simple business model and I like it, and I know that I’m not the product. I know I’m paying and that’s how the business model works.

And when I go use Twitter or Facebook or Google or any other great product but ad-supported great product, I don’t love that, and I think it gets worse, not better, in a world with AI.”

6. Altman Is Biased Against Advertising

Sam Altman explicitly said that he was biased against search and expressed confidence that there is a path toward an AI-based information retrieval system that is profitable without having to serve advertising. His statement that he was biased against advertising was made in the context of the interviewer raising the idea of “completely” throwing out ads, which Altman refused to confirm.

“Lex Fridman
…I could imagine AI would be better at showing the best kind of version of ads, not in a dystopic future, but where the ads are for things you actually need. But then does that system always result in the ads driving the kind of stuff that’s shown?

….I think it was a really bold move of Wikipedia not to do advertisements, but then it makes it very challenging as a business model. So you’re saying the current thing with OpenAI is sustainable, from a business perspective?

Sam Altman
Well, we have to figure out how to grow, but looks like we’re going to figure that out.

If the question is do I think we can have a great business that pays for our compute needs without ads, …I think the answer is yes.

Lex Fridman
Hm. Well, that’s promising. I also just don’t want to completely throw out ads as a…

Sam Altman
I’m not saying that. I guess I’m saying I have a bias against them.”

Is OpenAI Building A Challenge To Google?

Sam Altman did not directly say that OpenAI was building a challenge to Google. He did imply that a proper challenge to Google that uses AI doesn’t yet exist, saying that nobody has “cracked the code” on that yet.

What Altman offered was a general vision of an AI search that didn’t commoditize and sell the users to advertisers and thereby be more trustworthy and useful. He said that a proper  challenge to Google would be something that was completely different than what Google has been doing.

Watch the podcast at the 01:17:27 minute mark:

Featured Image by Shutterstock/photosince



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OpenAI’s Sam Altman On Challenging Google With AI Search