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Can this AI-powered search engine replace Google? It has for me.| GuyWhoKnowsThings

For my entire adult life, whenever I had a question about the world or needed to locate something online, I turned to Google for answers.

But recently, I left Google with a new search engine powered by artificial intelligence. (No, not Bing, who is dead to me after tried broke up my marriage last year.)

It's called Perplexity. the year of age seeker, whose founders previously worked in AI research at OpenAI and Meta, has quickly become one of the most talked-about products in the tech world. Technology experts marvel at this on social media, and investors like Jeff Bezos, who was also an early investor in Google, have showered it with cash. The company recently announced which had raised $74 million in a funding round led by Institutional Venture Partners, which valued the company at $520 million.

Many startups have tried to challenge Google over the years, without success. (A possible competitor, Neeva, closed last year after failing to gain traction.) But Google seems less invincible these days. Many users have complained that their Google search results have been saturated with spammy and low-quality websites. some people have started looking Look for answers on places like Reddit and TikTok.

Intrigued by the hype, I recently spent several weeks using Perplexity as my default search engine on both desktop and mobile devices. I tested both the free version and the paid product, Perplexity Pro, which costs $20 a month and gives users access to more powerful AI models and certain features, such as the ability to upload their own files.

Hundreds of searches later, I can report that while Perplexity isn't perfect, it is very good. And while I'm not ready to completely break with Google, I'm now more convinced that AI-powered search engines like Perplexity could loosen Google's grip on the search market, or at least force it to catch up.

I'm also afraid that AI search engines could destroy my work and that the entire digital media industry could collapse as a result of products like them. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

At first glance, Perplexity's desktop interface looks a lot like Google's: a text box centered on a sparse landing page.

But as soon as you start writing, the differences become apparent. When you ask a question, Perplexity doesn't return a list of links. Instead, it searches the web and uses AI to write a summary of what it finds. These answers are annotated with links to the sources the AI ​​used, which also appear in a panel above the answer.

I tested Perplexity on hundreds of queries, including questions about current events (“How did Nikki Haley do in the New Hampshire primary?”), shopping recommendations (“What is the best dog food for an older dog in pain in the joints?”) and questions about the home. tasks (“How long does beef stew keep well in the refrigerator?”).

Each time, I received an AI-generated response, usually a paragraph or two, peppered with quotes from websites like NPR, The New York Times, and Reddit, along with a list of suggested follow-up questions I could ask, such as “Do you “Can you freeze beef stew so it lasts longer?”

An impressive feature of Perplexity is “Copilot,” which helps the user narrow down a query by asking clarifying questions. When I asked for ideas on where to host a birthday party for a 2-year-old, for example, Copilot asked if I wanted suggestions for outdoor spaces, indoor spaces, or both. When I selected “interior,” he asked me to choose an approximate budget for the party. Only then did he give me a list of possible places.

Perplexity also allows users to search within a specific set of sources, such as academic articles, YouTube videos, or Reddit posts. I found this helpful when I was looking into how to change the settings on my home's water heater. (Interesting stuff, I know.) A Google search turned up a bunch of unhelpful links to DIY tutorials, some of which were thinly veiled advertisements for plumbing companies. I tried the same query on Perplexity and limited my search to YouTube videos. Perplexity found the video I needed for my exact model of water heater, extracted the relevant information from the video, and turned it into step-by-step instructions.

Under the hood, Perplexity runs on OpenAI's GPT-3.5 model along with its own AI model, a variant of Meta's open-source Llama 2 model. Users who upgrade to the Pro version can choose from several different models, including GPT-4 and Anthropic's Claude. (I used GPT-4 for most of my searches, but I didn't see much difference in the quality of the answers when I chose other models.)

Perplexity is also refreshingly good to admit when No to know something. Sometimes it would give a partial answer to my question, with a warning like “No further details provided in the search results.” Most AI chat products I've used lack this kind of humility: their responses sound confident even when they're talking nonsense.

During my testing, I found Perplexity to be most useful for complicated or open-ended searches, such as summarizing recent news articles about a specific company or giving me restaurant suggestions for date night. I also found it useful when what I was looking for (instructions for renewing a passport, for example) was buried on a cluttered, hard-to-navigate website.

But I went back to Google for some types of searches, usually when I was looking for specific people or trying to go to websites I already knew existed. For example: When I typed “Wayback Machine” into my browser's search bar, I was redirected to Perplexity, which spit out a one-paragraph essay on the history of the Internet Archive, the organization that maintains the Wayback Machine. I had to search for a little citation link to get to the Wayback Machine website, which is what I wanted in the first place.

Something similar happened when I asked Perplexity for directions to a work meeting. Google would have given me turn-by-turn directions from my house, thanks to its integration with Google Maps. But Perplexity doesn't know where I live, so the best it could offer me was a link to MapQuest.

Location data is just one of the many advantages Google has over Perplexity. Size is another: Perplexity, which has just 41 employees and is based in a co-working space in San Francisco, has 10 million monthly active users, an impressive number for a young company, but a smidge compared to the thousands. of millions from Google.

Perplexity also lacks a lucrative business model. Right now, the site is ad-free and fewer than 100,000 people pay for the premium version, said Aravind Srinivas, the company's chief executive. (Srinivas did not rule out switching to an ad-based model in the future.) And of course, Perplexity doesn't offer versions of Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Docs, or any of the dozens of other products that make the Google ecosystem so inescapable.

Srinivas told me in an interview that while he believed Google was a formidable competitor, he thought a small, focused company could surprise it.

“What gives me confidence is the fact that if they want to do better than us, they would basically have to kill their own business model,” he said.

One problem with AI-based search engines is that they tend to hallucinate or invent answers and sometimes deviate from the source material. This problem has plagued several AI-search hybrids, including Google's. Bard's initial releaseand remains one of the biggest barriers to mass adoption.

In my testing, I found that Perplexity's answers were mostly accurate or, to be more precise, they were as accurate as the sources they turned to.

I found some errors. When I asked Perplexity when Novak Djokovic's next tennis match would be, he gave me the details of a match he had already finished. Another time, when I uploaded a PDF of a new AI research paper and asked Perplexity to summarize it, I received a summary of a completely different paper that was published three years ago.

Srinivas acknowledged that AI-based search engines still make mistakes. He said that because Perplexity was a small and relatively obscure product, users did not expect it to have as much authority as Google, and that Google would have difficulty incorporating generative AI into its search engine because it needed to maintain its reputation for accuracy.

“Let's say you use our product and we respond well to eight out of ten queries. You would be impressed,” Srinivas said. “Now let's say you use Google's product and it only gets seven out of 10. You'd wonder, 'How can Google get three wrong queries?'”

“That asymmetry is our opportunity,” he added.

While I enjoyed using Perplexity, and will likely continue to use it along with Google, I admit I felt a sick feeling in my stomach after watching it spit out impeccable, concise summaries of news, product reviews, and how-to articles.

Much of today's digital media economy still depends on a constant stream of people clicking on Google links and receiving ads on publishers' websites.

But with Perplexity, you usually don't need to visit a website: the AI ​​navigates for you and gives you all the information you need right there on the answers page.

The possibility that AI-powered search engines could replace Google's traffic, or prompt Google to include similar features in its search engine, as it has begun to do with its “generative search experience” experiment, is partly why many digital publishers are terrified right now. It's also part of the reason some are fighting back, including The Times, which sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement last year.

After using Perplexity and hearing about similar products in development For other startups, I am convinced that those who worry are right. If AI search engines can reliably summarize what's happening in Gaza or tell users which toaster to buy, why would anyone revisit a publisher's website? Why would journalists, bloggers and product reviewers continue to publish their work online if an artificially intelligent search engine is going to gobble it up and regurgitate it?

I raised these fears with Mr. Srinivas, who responded with a diplomatic evasion. He admitted that Perplexity would likely send less traffic to websites than traditional search engines. But he said the traffic that remained would be higher quality and easier for publishers to monetize, because it would be the result of better, more targeted queries.

I'm skeptical of that argument and still nervous about what the future holds for writers, editors, and people who consume media online.

So for now, I'll have to weigh the convenience of using Perplexity with the concern that by using it, I'm contributing to my own downfall.

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