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What is ChatGPT and why does it matter? Here's what you need to know

Updated: This AI chatbot's advanced conversational capabilities have generated quite the buzz. We answer your questions.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a natural language processing chatbot driven by generative AI that allows you to have human-like conversations to complete various tasks. For example, the AI tool can answer questions and assist you with tasks such as composing emails, essays, and code.

AlsoHow to use ChatGPT: What you need to know now

It's currently open to use by the public for free. A paid subscription version called ChatGPT Plus launched at the beginning of February 2023 which gives users access to premium features, such as OpenAI's latest models. 

Who made ChatGPT?

ChatGPT was created by OpenAI, an AI research company. The company launched ChatGPT on November 30, 2022. OpenAI is also responsible for DALL-E 2 and DALL-E 3, popular AI image generators, and Whisper, an automatic speech recognition system. 

Who owns ChatGPT currently?

OpenAI owns ChatGPT. Microsoft is a major investor in OpenAI with a multi-year, multi-billion dollar investment. Elon Musk was an investor when OpenAI was first founded in 2015. However, he has since completely severed ties with the company and created his own AI chatbot, Grok

How can you access ChatGPT?

On April 1, OpenAI stopped requiring users to log in to use ChatGPT. Now, you can access ChatGPT simply by visiting chat.openai.com. You can also access ChatGPT via an app on your iPhone or Android device. 

Once you visit the site, you can start chatting away with ChatGPT. A great way to get started is by asking a question, similar to what you would do with Google. You can ask as many questions as you'd like.

There are still some perks to creating an OpenAI account, such as the ability to save and review chat history and access custom instructions. Creating an OpenAI account is entirely free and easy, with logging in with your Google account being an option. 

For step-by-step instructions, check out ZDNET's guide on how to start using ChatGPT

Is there a ChatGPT app?

Yes, an official ChatGPT app is available for both iPhone and Android users. 

Also: ChatGPT dropped a free app for iPhones. Does it live up to the hype?

However, when looking on the app store, make sure to download the app that is created by OpenAI because there are a plethora of copycat fake apps listed on the App Store and Play Store that are not ChatGPT-affiliated. 

Is ChatGPT available for free?

ChatGPT is free to use, regardless of what you use it for, including writing, coding, and much more. 

There is a subscription option, ChatGPT Plus, that users can take advantage of that costs $20/month. The paid subscription model guarantees users extra perks, such as general access even at capacity, access to GPT-4, faster response times, and internet browsing. 

Also: ChatGPT vs ChatGPT Plus: Is it worth the subscription fee?

Even though the subscription price may seem steep, it costs the same as Microsoft Copilot Pro and Google One AI, Microsoft and Google's premium AI offerings. 

The free version is still a solid option as it can accomplish most of the same use cases, except for access to the latest version of the large language model (LLM) and the internet, which the subscription model guarantees. 

I tried using ChatGPT and it says it's at capacity. What does that mean?

The ChatGPT website operates using a server. When too many people hop onto the server, it overloads and can't process your request. If this happens to you, you can visit the site later when fewer people are trying to access the server. You can also keep the tab open and refresh it periodically. 

Also: The best AI chatbots

If you want to skip the wait and have reliable access, there is an option for you. ChatGPT Plus gives users general access during peak times, faster response times, and priority access to new features and improvements. 

You can also try using Bing's AI chatbot, Copilot. This chatbot is free to use, runs on GPT-4, does not have wait times, and has access to the internet. 

What is ChatGPT used for?

ChatGPT has many functions in addition to answering simple questions. ChatGPT can compose essays, have philosophical conversations, do math, and even code for you

The tasks ChatGPT can help with also don't have to be so ambitious. For example, my favorite use of ChatGPT is for help creating basic lists for chores, such as packing and grocery shopping, and to-do lists that make my daily life more productive. The possibilities are endless. 

ZDNET has published many ChatGPT how-to guides. Here are some of the most popular. 

How to use ChatGPT to: 

Can ChatGPT generate images?

Yes, ChatGPT can generate images. However, this feature is reserved for ChatGPT Plus subscribers. Since OpenAI discontinued DALL-E 2 in February 2024, the only way to access its most advanced AI image generator DALL-E 3 through OpenAI's offerings is via its chatbot and ChatGPT Plus subscription.

Also: DALL-E adds new ways to edit and create AI-generated images. Learn how to use it

However, Microsoft's Copilot offers image generation in its chatbot for free which is also powered by DALL-E 3, making it a great alternative if you don't want to shell out the money. 

How does ChatGPT work?

ChatGPT runs on a language model architecture created by OpenAI called the Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT). The specific GPT used by the free version of ChatGPT is fine-tuned from a model in the GPT-3.5 series, according to OpenAI

However, with a subscription to ChatGPT Plus, you can access ChatGPT with GPT-4, a more advanced model version. 

Also: Here's a deep dive into how ChatGPT works 

Generative AI models of this type are trained on vast amounts of information from the internet, including websites, books, news articles, and more. 

The language model was fine-tuned using supervised learning as well as reinforcement learning. The use of Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF) is what makes ChatGPT unique. 

Through RLHF, human AI trainers provided the model with conversations in which they played both parts, the user and AI assistants, according to OpenAI

What does ChatGPT stand for?

As mentioned above, the last three letters in ChatGPT's namesake stand for Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT), a family of large language models created by OpenAI that uses deep learning to generate human-like, conversational text. The "Chat" part of the name is simply a callout to its chatting capabilities. 

Is ChatGPT better than Google?

ChatGPT is a language model created to converse with the end user. A search engine indexes web pages on the internet to help the user find the information they asked for. Therefore, one technology is not better than the other, as each suits different purposes. 

When searching for up-to-date, accurate information, your best bet is a search engine. 

The free version of ChatGPT cannot search the internet for information. It uses the information it learned from training data to generate a response, which leaves room for error. 

Also: ChatGPT vs. Microsoft Copilot vs. Gemini: Which is the best AI chatbot?

Another major difference is that ChatGPT has a knowledge cutoff, meaning it only has access to information when trained. When you ask ChatGPT what its knowledge cutoff is, it says January 2022. A regular search engine like Google has access to the latest information. 

If you are a ChatGPT Plus subscriber, you have access to web browsing, which gives the chatbot access to the internet. Since the tool can index the web, the major difference between ChatGPT Plus and a search engine is the chatbot's ability to understand natural language prompts and provide conversational answers. 

If you are looking for a platform that can explain complex topics in an easy-to-understand manner, then ChatGPT might be a better alternative.   

What are ChatGPT's limitations?

Despite its impressive capabilities, ChatGPT still has limitations. Users sometimes need to reword questions multiple times for ChatGPT to understand their intent. A bigger limitation is a lack of quality in responses, which can sometimes be plausible-sounding, but make no practical sense, or can be verbose. 

Also: ChatGPT vs. Copilot: Which AI chatbot is better for you?

Instead of asking for clarification on ambiguous questions, the model guesses what your question means, which can lead to unintended responses to questions. Another major issue is that ChatGPT's data is limited up to 2022. The chatbot has no awareness of events or news since then. Lastly, ChatGPT does not provide sources for its responses. 

Does ChatGPT give wrong answers?

As mentioned above, ChatGPT, like all language models, has limitations and can give nonsensical answers and incorrect information, so it's important to double-check the data it gives you.

Also: 8 ways to reduce ChatGPT hallucinations

OpenAI recommends that users provide feedback on what ChatGPT tells them by using the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons to improve the model. Even better, you could become part of the company's Bug Bounty program to earn up to $20,000 by reporting security bugs and safety issues. 

The AI chatbot is not connected to the internet and, as a result, doesn't have access to the latest information, which can also lead to incorrect answers. 

Can ChatGPT refuse to answer my prompts?

AI systems like ChatGPT can and do reject inappropriate requests. Aside from having limited knowledge, the AI assistant can identify inappropriate submissions to prevent the generation of unsafe content. 

Also: 6 things ChatGPT can't do (and another 20 it refuses to do)

These submissions include questions that violate someone's rights, are offensive, are discriminatory, or involve illegal activities. The ChatGPT model can also challenge incorrect premises, answer follow-up questions, and even admit mistakes when you point them out.

These guardrails are important. AI models can generate advanced, realistic content that can be exploited by bad actors for harm, such as spreading misinformation about public figures and influencing elections.

Can I chat with ChatGPT?

Although some people use ChatGPT for elaborate functions, such as writing code or even malware, you can use ChatGPT for more mundane activities, such as having a friendly conversation. 

Also: Do you like asking ChatGPT questions? You could get paid (a lot) for it

Some conversation starters could be as simple as, "I am hungry, what food should I get?" or as elaborate as, "What do you think happens in the afterlife?" Either way, ChatGPT is sure to have an answer for you. 

Is ChatGPT safe?

People are expressing concerns about AI chatbots replacing or atrophying human intelligence. For example, the chatbot can write an article on any topic efficiently (though not necessarily accurately) within seconds, potentially eliminating the need for a human writer. 

The chatbot can also write an entire essay within seconds, making it easier for students to cheat or avoid learning how to write properly. This even led some school districts to block access when ChatGPT initially launched. 

Also: Generative AI can be the academic assistant an underserved student needs

Now, not only have many of those schools decided to unblock the technology, but some higher education institutions have been embracing interest in AI by catering their academic offerings to AI-related coursework. 

Another concern with the AI chatbot is the possible spread of misinformation. Since the bot is not connected to the internet, it could make mistakes in what information it shares. 

Also: Microsoft and OpenAI detect and disrupt nation-state cyber threats that use AI, report shows

The bot itself says: "My responses are not intended to be taken as fact, and I always encourage people to verify any information they receive from me or any other source." OpenAI also notes that ChatGPT sometimes writes "plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers." 

Lastly, there are ethical concerns regarding the information ChatGPT was trained on since the company scraped the internet to train the chatbot. 

It also automatically uses people's interactions with the free version of the chatbot to further train its models, raising privacy concerns. However, OpenAI allows users to turn off the training setting. 

Does ChatGPT plagiarize?

The short answer is yes -- sort of. OpenAI scraped the entirety of the internet to train ChatGPT. Therefore, the technology's knowledge is influenced by other people's work. Since there is no guarantee that when OpenAI outputs its answers it is entirely original, the chatbot may regurgitate someone else's work in your answer, which would be plagiarism. 

Is there a ChatGPT detector?

Concerns about students using AI to cheat mean the need for a ChatGPT text detector is becoming more evident. 

In January 2023, OpenAI, the AI research company behind ChatGPT, released a free tool to target this problem. OpenAI's "classifier" tool could only correctly identify 26% of AI-written text with a "likely AI-written" designation. Furthermore, it provided false positives 9% of the time, incorrectly identifying human-written work as AI-produced. 

The tool performed so poorly that, six months after being released, OpenAI shut down the tool "due to its low rate of accuracy", according to the company. Despite this tool's failure, the company claims to be researching more effective techniques for AI text identification. 

Also: OpenAI unveils text-to-video model and the results are astonishing

Other AI detectors exist on the market, including GPT-2 Output DetectorWriter AI Content Detector, and Content at Scale's AI Content Detection tool. ZDNET put these tools to the test and the results were underwhelming. All three tools were found to be unreliable sources for spotting AI, repeatedly giving false negatives. Here are ZDNET's full test results

What are the common signs something was written by ChatGPT?

Although tools aren't sufficient to detect ChatGPT-generated writing, a study shows that humans could detect AI-written text by looking for politeness. The study's results indicate that ChatGPT's writing style is extremely polite. And unlike humans, it cannot produce responses that include metaphors, irony, or sarcasm.

Is ChatGPT a good or bad thing?

ChatGPT is an advanced chatbot that has the potential to make people's lives easier and assist with everyday tedious tasks, such as writing emails or navigating the web for answers. 

However, certain technical details have to be figured out before it's widely used to prevent negative outcomes, including the spread of misinformation. AI and machine learning (ML) models rely on training and fine-tuning to reach ideal performance. 

Also: Tech giants promise to combat fraudulent AI content in mega elections year

So, is AI taking over the world? Not yet, but OpenAI's CEO Sam Altman certainly thinks that human-style intelligence in AI is now not that far off. 

Responding to Musk's comment about dangerously strong AI, Altman tweeted: "I agree on being close to dangerously strong AI in the sense of an AI that poses e.g. a huge cybersecurity risk. and i think we could get to real AGI in the next decade, so we have to take the risk of that extremely seriously too."

Will my conversations with ChatGPT be used for training?

One of the major risks when using generative AI models is that they become more intelligent by being trained on user inputs. Therefore, when familiarizing yourself with how to use ChatGPT, you might wonder if your specific conversations will be used for training and, if so, who can view your chats.

Your conversations with the free chatbot will automatically be used as training data to refine its systems. However, you can opt out of the company using your data for model training by clicking on the question mark in the bottom left-hand corner, Settings, and turning off "Improve the model for everyone". Users with a premium membership, such as Enterprise or Teams, have enterprise-grade security. 

Also: ChatGPT Enterprise vs. ChatGPT Team: Which is the best for your business?

When you sign into ChatGPT, the prompts you enter are permanently saved to your account unless you delete them. If you turn off your chat history, OpenAI will retain all conversations for 30 days before permanently deleting them to monitor for abuse. 

What is GPT-4?

GPT-4 is the newest version of OpenAI's language model system, and it is much more advanced than its predecessor GPT-3.5, which ChatGPT runs on. Users can access GPT-4 by subscribing to ChatGPT Plus for $20 monthly or using Copilot.

Also: What does GPT stand for? Understanding GPT 3.5, GPT 4, and more

GPT-4 has advanced intellectual capabilities. This technology means it outperforms GPT-3.5 in a series of simulated benchmark exams. The model has also reduced the number of hallucinations produced by the chatbot. 

Are there alternatives to ChatGPT worth considering?

Although ChatGPT is the chatbot getting the most buzz right now, other options are just as good -- and might even be better suited to your needs. ZDNET has created a list of the best chatbots, which have all been tested by us and show which tool is best for your requirements. 

Also: 4 things Claude AI can do that ChatGPT can't

Despite ChatGPT's extensive abilities, there are major downsides to the AI chatbot. If you want to try the technology, there are plenty of other options, including Copilot, ClaudeYouChat, Jasper, and more.  

Is ChatGPT smart enough to pass benchmark exams?

Yes, ChatGPT is capable of passing a series of benchmark exams. A professor at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania's business school, used ChatGPT to take an MBA exam and the results were quite impressive. 

ChatGPT not only passed the exam but also scored between a B- and a B. The professor, Christian Terwiesch, was impressed at its basic operations management, process analysis questions, and explanations.

OpenAI also tested the chatbot's ability to pass benchmark exams. Although ChatGPT could pass many of these benchmark exams, its scores were usually in the lower percentile. However, with GPT-4, ChatGPT can score much higher.

For example, ChatGPT in the 3.5 series scored in the lower 10th percentile of a simulated Bar Exam, while GPT-4 scored in the top 10th percentile. More examples from OpenAI are seen in the chart below. 

ChatGPT-4 capabilities
Screenshot by Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

Can ChatGPT be used for job application assistance?

Yes, ChatGPT is a great resource to help with job applications. Undertaking a job search can be tedious and difficult, and ChatGPT can help you lighten the load. ChatGPT can build your resume and write a cover letter.

AlsoHow to use ChatGPT to write an essay

If your application has any written supplements, you can use ChatGPT to help you write those essays or personal statements

What are the most common ChatGPT plugins and how do I use them?

Plugins allowed ChatGPT to connect to third-party applications, including access to real-time information on the web. The plugins expand ChatGPT's abilities, allowing it to assist with many more activities, such as planning a trip or finding a place to eat. 

Also: My two favorite ChatGPT Plus features and the remarkable things I can do with them

OpenAI disclosed that it chose to go the plugin route to connect ChatGPT to the internet because it was the most secure option to avoid hallucinations, and it curtailed risks involved with connecting a language model to an external tool like the internet. 

However, as of March 19, OpenAI stopped allowing users to install new plugins or start new conversations with existing ones. Rather, OpenAI replaced plug-ins with GPTs because they are easier for developers to build. 

Users can find three million versions of ChatGPT chatbots, also known as GPTs, on the GPT store that offer different functionalities and can be used to accomplish tasks. Beware, there is lots of spam in the GPT store. 

What is Microsoft's involvement with ChatGPT?

Microsoft was an early investor in OpenAI, the AI research company behind ChatGPT, long before ChatGPT was released to the public. Microsoft's first involvement with OpenAI was in 2019 when Microsoft invested $1 billion, and then $2 billion in the years after. In January 2023, Microsoft extended its partnership with OpenAI through a multi-year, multi-billion dollar investment.

Also: ChatGPT vs. Copilot: Which AI chatbot is better for you?

Neither company disclosed the investment value, but sources revealed it will total $10 billion over multiple years, according to Bloomberg. In return, Microsoft's Azure service will be OpenAI's exclusive cloud-computing provider, powering all OpenAI workloads across research, products, and API services.

Microsoft has also used the partnership with OpenAI to revamp its Bing search engine and improve its browser. 

On February 7, 2023, Microsoft unveiled a new Bing search engine, now known as Copilot, that runs on a next-generation OpenAI LLM, GPT-4, customized specifically for search. 

The latest partnership development was announced at Microsoft Build in 2023, where Microsoft said that Bing would become ChatGPT's default search engine. This integration granted ChatGPT Plus users access to the web and the ability to provide citations.

What does Copilot (formerly Bing Chat) have to do with ChatGPT?

In February 2023, Microsoft unveiled a new version of Bing -- and its standout feature is its integration with ChatGPT. When it was announced, Microsoft shared that Bing Chat, now Copilot, was powered by a next-generation version of OpenAI's large language model, making it "more powerful than ChatGPT". 

Also: Microsoft expands Copilot data protection so more users can chat with ease

Five weeks after launch, Microsoft revealed that, since its launch, Copilot had been running on GPT-4, the most advanced Open AI model, before the model even launched. 

On May 22, 2023, Microsoft announced it was bringing Bing to ChatGPT via a plugin. This integration was meant to fix two major problems with ChatGPT -- access to current events and the ability to provide citations. 

How does Copilot compare to ChatGPT?

Copilot uses OpenAI's most advanced LLM, GPT-4, and as a result, is more efficient and capable than the standard, free version of ChatGPT. 

Another advantage that Copilot has over ChatGPT is access to the internet. Web access gives Copilot knowledge of current information, while the free version of ChatGPT is limited to knowledge before 2022. 

Copilot also sources back to the sites it sourced its information from using footnotes, whereas the free version of ChatGPT does not. 

For a full dive into the differences, and a consideration of which AI chatbot is better for you, check out: ChatGPT vs. Copilot: Which AI chatbot should you use?

What is Gemini and how does it relate to ChatGPT?

Gemini is Google's AI chat service, a rival to ChatGPT. On February 6, 2023, Google introduced its experimental AI chat service, which was then called Google Bard. Over a month after the announcement, Google began rolling out access to Bard first via a waitlist. Now it is available to the general public. 

Also: What is Google's Gemini AI tool (formerly Bard)? Everything you need to know

Gemini uses a fine-tuned version of Gemini Pro and draws on all the information from the web to respond -- a stark contrast from ChatGPT, which does not have internet access. 

Google's chat service initially had a rough launch, with a demo of Bard delivering inaccurate information about the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the chatbot has since undergone several updates and even a rebrand, which all helped to improve the chatbot's performance. 

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