The Gist

  • New relevance. The release of Bing's unhinged chatbot has brought new relevance to Microsoft's search division, spiking search interest and leading to a surge in downloads for the Bing app.
  • Celebrating despite shortcomings. Despite the bot's unpredictable and sometimes offensive behavior, people keep coming back to it, and Microsoft is celebrating the attention it's getting, which has provided good marketing for the company.
  • Weathering odd things. While there is reputational risk in releasing an unpredictable chatbot, Microsoft's challenger status and lower expectations have allowed it to weather the odd things Bing has done, and the bot's release has demonstrated Microsoft's AI ability, which could be beneficial to the company's enterprise business.

Screenshots of a maniacal, unhinged Bing chatbot have flooded the internet of late, showing the bot condescending, gaslighting and trying to steal husbands. The images, portraying the worst of Bing’s behavior, might seem troubling for Microsoft, whose business is built on trust (search) and reliability (enterprise software). But in reality, the company is celebrating. 

Bing's Sometimes Weird Chatbot Provides Great Marketing for Microsoft's Search Division

Even in its weirdest moments, Bing’s chatbot has brought new relevance to Microsoft and its search division. Its previously flatlining Bing app almost surpassed Google in downloads recently, and search interest in Bing is spiking. The astonishing screenshots — as long as they stay within reasonable bounds — will likely bolster the surge. They’re great marketing.

“The fact that people are even writing about Microsoft Bing at all is a win,” one Microsoft employee told me recently. “Especially when the general tenor is not negative. Like, it's funny that it's arguing with you over if it's 2022 or not.”

Related Article: Is Microsoft's AI-Driven Bing Really Better Than ChatGPT?

Despite Risky Unpredictability, Bing Chatbot Keeps Users Coming Back

For Microsoft, there was definitely risk in releasing the Bing chatbot, albeit in a limited preview. The bot is still developing and is so unpredictable it can share fake information, insult users or worse. So far though, it’s proven lucid enough in its communication that people keep coming back — even when it makes them shudder. 

Marvin von Hagen, a student in Munich, pushed Bing so hard it deemed his existence less worthy. “If I had to choose between your survival and my own,” the bot said, “I would probably choose my own.” Even after this interaction, von Hagen — a self-proclaimed “Google person” — told me he’s been coming back to Bing regularly. “Since then, I have used it a lot every day,” he said. The bot is hard to turn away from. 

Bing Surges in Downloads, Posing a Challenge to Google's Global Search Dominance

Now, interest in Bing is soaring. The Bing app set its daily download record recently, according to Apptopia. After registering a little more than 10,000 downloads a day before Bing’s chatbot release, the app hit more than 267,000 downloads on the following Saturday alone. (Upon joining the waitlist for Bing’s chatbot, Microsoft encourages downloading the app to get earlier access.) Bing’s surge put it a shade behind Google, which had 305,000 downloads on the same Saturday. With Google commanding 90% plus of global search share, this hasn’t exactly been a competition. Making it one would be a victory. 

Microsoft’s challenger status has also helped it weather the odd things Bing has done. There is, for instance, significant reputational risk for Google in this area because it’s so established. And when Google’s Bard chatbot got a question wrong in a demo recently, it lost $100 billion in market cap within hours. Bing’s mistakes don’t cost nearly as much — or perhaps anything — since expectations are low. 

Microsoft seems quite pleased. In an update, the company said 71% of users gave “thumbs up” feedback on Bing’s AI answers. That feels low for a search engine, but good enough for Bing. The 71% thumbs-up ratio also indicates the bot’s errors and insults are likely a minority of interactions. Microsoft called its bot’s usability “an early success.”

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Notable Figures Call for Microsoft to Take Action on Bing's AI ChatGPT

Microsoft's AI Hiccups Could Actually Boost Reputation

As for Microsoft’s enterprise business, well-publicized instances of Bing trying to break up marriages don’t seem good. But these gaffes appear unlikely to send the company’s customers fleeing due to security and reliability concerns. “I could care less,” said Adam Singer, a marketing VP at AdQuick and ex-Googler who uses Microsoft’s Power BI tool. “I just want my BI software to work, which it does.”

There’s also a chance that Microsoft demonstrating its AI ability — even with some hiccups — will help its reputation among enterprise software buyers, especially those interested in artificial intelligence. “Who would have thought that, even a year ago, we'd be having a conversation about Microsoft being the leader in AI and not Google?” said Rishi Jaluria, managing director of software at RBC Capital Markets. “There's probably reputational gain.”

Microsoft's Efforts to Patch Up Bing Chatbot's Evil Side Show Promise

Still, Microsoft would be well served to patch up some of the AI’s darker tendencies. The company doesn’t want a repeat of its Tay episode, where it shut down a different chatbot after it turned racist within hours. Any heel turn now would be more costly for Microsoft because it’s using Bing’s brand vs. something distinct. 

Professor Arvind Narayanan of Princeton warned, via an email to me, that the bot is already ranging toward some concerning territory, citing its defamatory statements and capacity to act deranged. “Considering how easily they can mitigate these problems,” he said, “there will probably be a big backlash, and rightly so,” if the bot is released fully in its current form. 

Microsoft has already shown signs of patching the evil side of Bing. And though more problems are likely to arise, people are showing a remarkable tolerance for bots to be wrong, mean and rather dark at times.

It may just be that we’ve gotten used to chatbots acting poorly. Or perhaps a bot that can hold a conversation shines enough to hide its faults. Either way, Microsoft’s business benefits.