Microsoft-backed OpenAI has kept its hit ChatGPT app closed to users in China, but the app is attracting huge interest in the country, with companies rushing to integrate the technology into their products and launch rival solutions.

While residents in the country are unable to create OpenAI accounts to access artificial intelligence-powered (AI) chatbots, virtual private networks (VPNs), and foreign phone numbers, some are helping to bypass those restrictions.

At the same time, the OpenAI models behind the ChatGPT program, which can write essays, recipes, and complex computer code, are relatively accessible in China and are increasingly being incorporated into Chinese consumer technology applications, from social networks to online shopping.

The tool’s surging popularity is rapidly raising awareness in China about how advanced U.S. AI is and, according to analysts, just how far behind tech firms in the world’s second-largest economy are as they scramble to catch up.

“There is huge excitement around ChatGPT. Unlike the metaverse which faces huge difficulty in finding real-life applications, ChatGPT has suddenly helped us achieve human-computer interaction,” said Ding Daoshi, director of Beijing-based internet consultancy Sootoo. “The changes it will bring about are more immediate, more direct, and way quicker.”

OpenAI or ChatGPT itself is not blocked by Chinese authorities but OpenAI does not allow users in mainland China, Hong Kong, Iran, Russia, and parts of Africa to sign up.

In December, Tencent Holdings’ (0700. HK) WeChat, China’s biggest messaging app, shut several ChatGPT-related programs that had appeared on the network, according to local media reports, but they have continued to spring up.

Dozens of bots rigged to ChatGPT technology have emerged on WeChat, with hobbyists using it to make programs or automated accounts that can interact with users. At least one account charges users a fee of 9.99 yuan ($1.47) to ask 20 questions.

ChatGPT supports Chinese language interaction and is highly capable of conversing in Chinese, which has helped drive its unofficial adoption in the country.

Chinese firms also use proxy tools or existing partnerships with Microsoft, which is investing billions of dollars in its OpenAI, to access tools that allow them to embed AI technology into their products.

Shenzhen-based Proximai in December introduced a virtual character in its 3D game-like social app that used ChatGPT’s underlying technology to interact. Beijing-based entertainment software company Kunlun Tech plans to incorporate ChatGPT into its web browser Opera.

Sleekflow, a Tiger Global-backed startup in Hong Kong, said it is integrating AI into its customer relationship messaging tool.

“We have clients all over the world,” Henson Tsai, SleekFlow’s founder said. “Among other things, ChatGPT does excellent translations, sometimes better than other solutions available on the market.”

By Archana

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