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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.
By Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a natural language processing chatbot driven by generative AI technology that allows you to have human-like conversations and much more. 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. 

Who made ChatGPT?

ChatGPT was created by OpenAI, an AI and research company. The company launched ChatGPT on November 30, 2022. 

Also: I'm taking AI image courses for free on Udemy with this little trick - and you can too

OpenAI is also responsible for creating DALL-E 2, a popular AI art generator, and Whisper, an automatic speech recognition system. 

How can you access ChatGPT?

You can access ChatGPT simply by visiting chat.openai.com and creating an OpenAI account. Both creating an OpenAI account and using the chatbot are entirely free. 

Once you sign in, you can start chatting away with ChatGPT. Get your conversation started by asking a question. You can ask as many questions as you'd like.

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

You can also access ChatGPT via an app on your iPhone or Android device. 

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 access to the internet through plugins. 

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. 

A free version is still a solid option as it has mostly the same technical abilities, with the exception of access to the latest version of the large language model (LLM), known as GPT-4, 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, and when too many people hop onto the server, it overloads and can't process your request. If this happens to you, you can try visiting the site at a later time when fewer people are trying to access the server. You can also keep the tab open and just 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 allows users to have general access even during peak times, experience faster response times, and have priority access to new features and improvements, including OpenAI's most advanced LLM, GPT-4

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 personal 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: 

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 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, Open AI's most advanced model. 

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 especially 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

Is ChatGPT better than Google?

ChatGPT is a language model created to hold a conversation 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 is not better than the other, as they suit different purposes. 

If you are searching for up-to-date, accurate information, then a search engine is your best bet. 

The free version of ChatGPT does not have the ability to 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 only has access to information up to 2021, whereas a regular search engine like Google has access to the latest information. So, if you ask the free version of ChatGPT who won the World Cup in 2022, it wouldn't be able to give you a response, but Google would. 

If you are a ChatGPT Plus subscriber, you have access to web browsing, which gives the chatbot access to the internet. Since it has the ability to 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 in search of 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 very 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 the responses it delivers -- which can sometimes be plausible-sounding, but make no practical sense, or can be excessively verbose. 

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

Instead of asking for clarification on ambiguous questions, the model just guesses what your question means, which can lead to unintended responses to questions. Another major limitation is that ChatGPT's data is limited up to 2021. The chatbot does not have an awareness of events or news that has occurred since then. Lastly, ChatGPT does not provide sources for its responses. 

Does ChatGPT give wrong answers?

A 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 extremely important to implement because these models are capable of generating such advanced, realistic content that it can be exploited by bad actors to do harm, such as spreading misinformation about public figures and influencing elections.

Can I chat with ChatGPT?

Although some people are using ChatGPT for some 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. 

Why are some people worried about ChatGPT?

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 to it 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".  

Is there a ChatGPT detector?

With concerns about students using ChatGPT to cheat, 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 work. 

The tool was performing 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. Take a look for yourself

Other AI detectors also 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 of the tools were found to be unreliable sources for spotting AI, repeatedly giving false negatives. Here are ZDNET's full test results

Although tools aren't sufficient to detect ChatGPT-generated writing, a study shows that humans might be able to 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 both 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. In general, AI and machine learning (ML) models rely on lots of training and fine-tuning to reach a level of ideal performance. 

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

So, is AI taking over the world? Not yet, perhaps, 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 can be viewed by OpenAI and used as training data to refine its systems unless you have a premium membership, such as Plus, Enterprise, or Teams. Therefore, if you have any personal or private information you wouldn't want to be used for future training data, it might be a good idea to not enter it into the chat window. 

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

The prompts you enter when you use ChatGPT are also 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. 

GPT-4 is a multimodal model that accepts both text and images as input, and it outputs text. This multimodal nature can be useful for uploading worksheets, graphs, and charts to be analyzed. 

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

Users can access additional functions by subscribing to ChatGPT Plus for $20 per month or by using Copilot.

GPT-4 has advanced intellectual capabilities that allow it to outperform 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, there are other options that are just as good -- and they 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 suited for your requirements. 

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

Despite ChatGPT's extensive abilities, there are some major downsides to the AI chatbot. If you want to give the world of AI chatbots and writers a try, there are plenty of other options to consider, including Copilot, Claude, YouChat, 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 the use of 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. 

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 in addition to your cover letter, you can use ChatGPT to help you write those essays or personal statements

What does ChatGPT have to do with plugins?

Plugins allow 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: The 10 best ChatGPT plugins (and how to make the most of them)

There are over 70-plus third-party plugins, including Expedia, Zillow, Kayak, Instacart, OpenTable, Klarna, Fiscal Note, and more. The use of plugins is currently limited to ChatGPT Plus subscribers.

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 curtails risks involved with connecting a language model to an external tool like the internet.

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 its partnership with OpenAI to revamp its own 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, 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 on current information, while the free version of ChatGPT is limited to knowledge before 2021. 

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, then called Google Bard. Over a month after the announcement, Google began rolling out access to Bard via a waitlist.

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 LLM changes, and even a rebrand, which improved the chatbot's performance. 


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