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The OpenAI website ChatGPT about page on a laptop computer. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Baidu Inc. is planning to roll out an artificial intelligence chatbot service similar to OpenAI's ChatGPT, according to a person familiar with the matter, potentially China's most prominent entry in a race touched off by the tech phenomenon.

China's largest search engine company plans to debut a ChatGPT-style application in March, initially embedding it into its main search services, said the person, asking to remain unidentified discussing private information. The tool, whose name hasn't been decided, will allow users to get conversation-style search results much like OpenAI's popular platform.

The company's shares rose as much as 5.8% after Bloomberg's report, the largest intraday gain in almost four weeks.

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Baidu has spent billions of dollars researching AI in a years-long effort to transition from online marketing to deeper technology. Its Ernie system "- a large-scale machine-learning model that's been trained on data over several years "- will be the foundation of its upcoming ChatGPT-like tool, the person said. A Baidu representative declined to comment.

ChatGPT, OpenAI's artificial intelligence tool, has lit up the internet since its public debut in November, amassing more than a million users within days and touching off a debate about the role of AI in schools, offices and homes. Companies including Microsoft Corp. are investing billions to try and develop real-world applications, while others are capitalizing on the hype to raise funds. Buzzfeed Inc.'s shares more than doubled this month after it announced plans to incorporate ChatGPT in its content.

Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Tencent Holdings Ltd. and ByteDance Ltd. control much of China's internet. The search company has been trying to revive growth in the mobile era, after increasingly lagging its larger rivals in arenas such as mobile advertising, video and social media. Apart from research in AI, the search giant is now also developing autonomous driving technology.

Baidu Chief Executive Officer Robin Li raised ChatGPT as an example of where the tech giant can take the lead during an internal talk in December, according to a transcript viewed by Bloomberg News.

"I'm so glad that the technology we are pondering every day can attract so many people's attention. That's not easy," he said. He warned that the commercialization of generative AI by making it a "product that everyone needs" could be challenging though.

ChatGPT also piqued the interest of Chinese internet users, who like people elsewhere shared screenshots of surprising conversations with the AI bot on local social media. That's despite a heavily censored domestic internet largely walled off from the rest of the world, a model that's helped companies like Baidu thrive as local equivalents to Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Apart from Baidu, several Chinese startups are also exploring generative AI, and have attracted investors such as Sequoia and Sinovation Ventures.