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AI startup Perplexity wants to upend search business. News outlet Forbes says it's ripping them off

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AI startup Perplexity wants to upend search business. News outlet Forbes says it's ripping them off
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AI startup Perplexity wants to upend search business. News outlet Forbes says it's ripping them off

2024-06-14 22:14 Last Updated At:22:22

The artificial intelligence startup Perplexity AI has raised tens of millions of dollars from the likes of Jeff Bezos and other prominent tech investors for its mission to rival Google in the business of searching for information.

But its AI-driven search chatbot is already facing challenges as some news media companies object to its business practices. It is also competing against t ech giants Google, and now Apple, which are increasingly fusing similar AI features into their core products.

Perplexity CEO Aravind Srinivas has spent much of the past week defending the company after it published a summarized news story with information and similar wording to a Forbes investigative story but without citing the media outlet or asking for its permission. Forbes said it later found similar “knock-off” stories lifted from other publications.

The Associated Press separately found another Perplexity product feature inventing fake quotes from real people, including a former elected town official from Martha’s Vineyard falsely quoted to say he didn’t want the Massachusetts island to become a destination for marijuana.

“I never said that,” said Bill Rossi, a former member of the island town of Chilmark’s select board.

Srinivas told The Associated Press that his company is trying to build positive relationships with news publishers that ensure their news content “reaches more people.”

“We can definitely coexist and help each other,” he said.

Asked about Forbes, he said his product “never ripped off content from anybody. Our engine is not training on anyone else’s content,” in part because the company is simply aggregating what other companies’ AI systems generate.

“We are actually more of an aggregator of information and providing it to the people with the right attribution,” Srinivas said. But, he added, “It was accurately pointed out by Forbes that they preferred a more prominent highlighting of the source. We took that feedback immediately and updated changes that day itself. And now the sources are more prominently highlighted.”

Perplexity also revealed this week that it has been seeking revenue-sharing partnerships that would pay news publishers a portion of Perplexity’s advertising revenue each time an outlet’s news content is referenced as a source.

Randall Lane, chief content officer of Forbes Media, called the dispute an “inflection point” in the conversation about AI.

“It’s a case study in where we’re heading,” Lane told the AP. “If the people who are leading the charge don’t have a fundamental respect for the hard work of doing proprietary reporting, and keeping people informed with value-added content, we’ve got a big problem.”

A self-described “AI bull” who believes that the technology could help make many news organizations more efficient, Lane said the dispute between Perplexity and Forbes is important because it is a “metaphor for what can happen if the people controlling the AI don’t respect the people doing the work.”

Perplexity bills itself as a search engine while “acting like a media company and publishing a story” that only Forbes had reported, Lane said.

“The whole thing was very disingenuous. And what we didn’t hear was, ‘Oops, yeah we messed that one up and we need to do better,’” he said. “Instead, it was just putting out more content, little tweaks to the model and treating journalism like it’s just a commodity to be manufactured.”

Srinivas, a computer scientist and former AI researcher at OpenAI and Google, co-founded Perplexity in the summer of 2022, not long before the AI image-generator Stable Diffusion and OpenAI’s ChatGPT began sparking the public's fascination with the possibilities of generative AI.

Inspired, in part, by his childhood love of Wikipedia, he described Perplexity to the AP as “like a marriage of Wikipedia and ChatGPT” that can instantly answer a person’s questions without the “huge cluttered mess” of Google’s conventional search results.

“You ask a question, you get an answer with clean sources, and there’s like three or four suggested (follow-up) questions and that’s it,” he said of Perplexity. “That way people’s minds can be free from distractions, and they can just focus on learning and digging deeper.”

The company sells a subscription for premium features and is planning to start an advertising-based service as it grows its user base.

“We are not profitable as a company today, but we are also more sustainably run than foundation model companies because we do not train our own foundation models,” which requires huge amounts of computing power, he said.

Perplexity relies on existing AI large language models such as those built by OpenAI, Anthropic and Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook; and then “post-trains” them.

“We shape them to be really good summarizers,” he said.

It’s not always clear where the summarized information is coming from. One Perplexity feature called Writing — which enables a user to “generate text or chat without searching the web” — produces lengthy and unsourced commentary, often in the style of a news article. Tests of the feature by an AP reporter asking it to write about the lack of marijuana on Martha’s Vineyard led it to produce a 465-word document that resembled a news article and included fabricated quotations from the former town official and another real person.

The AP is not repeating the false quotes in order to avoid perpetuating misinformation. Srinivas said that the Writing feature of Perplexity is a “minor use case” that was intended for helping to compose essays or correcting grammar when primary source information isn’t needed. He said it's “more prone to hallucinations” — a common problem with AI large language models — because it isn't tethered to the web search capabilities of Perplexity's core product.

“There is no doubt that generative AI is upending journalism, content creation, and search,” said Sarah Kreps, director of Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute.

She pointed to Google’s new, Perplexity-like approach that summarizes answers based on information pulled from crawling the web, as an example. That, too, led to false information and forced Google to make adjustments to the product after its public release.

“But their whole model of advertising is based on sending people to websites,” she said in an email. “Why will people go to websites if they can have the one-stop-shop of the answer in the AI output?”

Srinivas claimed to the AP that “a lot of people get referrals from Perplexity, and I’m happy that they’re getting referrals from a new player in the internet."

For now, much of that benefit may be aspirational. Perplexity’s worldwide user base has grown rapidly this year to more than 85 million web visits in May, but that barely registers compared to the billions of users of ChatGPT and other popular platforms from Microsoft and Google, according to data from Similarweb.

The debate demonstrates the “uncertain and challenging times” for online content creators in general and journalism in particular because aggregators only work if publications such as Forbes exist, said Stephen Lind, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

Using AI as a synthesizing tool works for widespread dissemination of information until “you run out of originals,” he said.

“There are whole companies or whole applications that are also doing this, where they are rolling out new services without fully thinking through the implications or best practices or safeguards because they’re rolling out applications for industries that maybe they’re not native to,” he said.

Lind said it’s good that companies like Perplexity are “taking at least some steps to course correct when an industry or a user pushes back.” But some of the changes should have been baked in from the beginning, he added.

FILE - People are reflected in a window of a hotel at the Davos Promenade in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 15, 2024. The artificial intelligence startup Perplexity AI has raised tens of millions of dollars from the likes of Jeff Bezos and other prominent tech investors for its mission to rival Google in the business of searching for information. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

FILE - People are reflected in a window of a hotel at the Davos Promenade in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 15, 2024. The artificial intelligence startup Perplexity AI has raised tens of millions of dollars from the likes of Jeff Bezos and other prominent tech investors for its mission to rival Google in the business of searching for information. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

A court has convicted Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday.

The conviction in Kazan, the capital of Russia's central region of Tatarstan, came on Friday, the same day a court in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg convicted Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison in a case that the U.S. called politically motivated.

Kurmasheva, a 47-year-old editor for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir language service, was convicted of “spreading false information” about the military, according to the website of the Supreme Court of Tatarstan. Court spokesperson Natalya Loseva confirmed Kurmasheva's conviction and revealed the sentence to The Associated Press by phone in the case classified as secret.

Kurmasheva was ordered to serve the sentence in a medium-security penal colony, Loseva said.

“My daughters and I know Alsu has done nothing wrong. And the world knows it too. We need her home,” Kurmasheva's husband, Pavel Butorin, said in a post Monday on X.

He had said last year the charges stemmed from a book the Tatar-Bashkir service released in 2022 called “No to War” — “a collection of short stories of Russians who don’t want their country to be at war with Ukraine.” Butorin had said the book doesn’t contain any “false information.”

Asked about the case, RFE/RL President and CEO Stephen Capus denounced the trial and conviction of Kurmasheva as “a mockery of justice.”

“The only just outcome is for Alsu to be immediately released from prison by her Russian captors,” he said in a statement to the AP.

“It’s beyond time for this American citizen, our dear colleague, to be reunited with her loving family,” Capus said.

Kurmasheva, who holds U.S. and Russian citizenship and lives in Prague with her husband and two daughters, was taken into custody in October 2023 and charged with failing to register as a foreign agent while collecting information about the Russian military.

Later, she was also charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian military under legislation that effectively criminalized any public expression about the war in Ukraine that deviates from the Kremlin line. The legislation was adopted in March 2022, just days after the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine, and has since been used to target Kremlin critics at home and abroad, implicating scores of people in criminal cases and sending dozens to prison.

Kurmasheva was initially stopped in June 2023 at Kazan International Airport after traveling to Russia the previous month to visit her ailing elderly mother. Officials confiscated her U.S. and Russian passports and fined her for failing to register her U.S. passport. She was waiting for her passports to be returned when she was arrested on new charges in October that year. RFE/RL has repeatedly called for her release.

RFE/RL was told by Russian authorities in 2017 to register as a foreign agent, but it has challenged Moscow’s use of foreign agent laws in the European Court of Human Rights. The organization has been fined millions of dollars by Russia.

In February, RFE/RL was outlawed in Russia as an undesirable organization. Its Tatar-Bashkir service is the only major international news provider reporting in those languages, in addition to Russian, to audiences in the multiethnic, Muslim-majority Volga-Urals region.

The swift and secretive trials of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich in Russia’s highly politicized legal system raised hopes for a possible prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington. Russia has previously signaled a possible exchange involving Gershkovich, but said a verdict in his case must come first.

Arrests of Americans are increasingly common in Russia, with nine U.S. citizens known to be detained there as tensions between the two countries have escalated over fighting in Ukraine.

Gershkovich, 32, was arrested March 29, 2023, while on a reporting trip to the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. Authorities claimed, without offering any evidence, that he was gathering secret information for the U.S.

He has been behind bars since his arrest, time that will be counted as part of his sentence. Most of that was in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison — a czarist-era lockup used during Josef Stalin’s purges, when executions were carried out in its basement. He was transferred to Yekaterinburg for the trial.

Gershkovich was the first U.S. journalist arrested on espionage charges since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986, at the height of the Cold War. Foreign journalists in Russia were shocked by Gershkovich’s arrest, even though the country has enacted increasingly repressive laws on freedom of speech after sending troops into Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden said after his conviction that Gershkovich “was targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Moscow last week of treating “human beings as bargaining chips.” She singled out Gershkovich and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, 53, a corporate security director from Michigan, who is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted on spying charges that he and the U.S. denied.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that when it comes to Gershkovich, Whelan and other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia and elsewhere, the U.S. is working on the cases “quite literally every day.”

Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis said the conviction and sentencing of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich on the same day “suggests — but does not prove — that the Kremlin is preparing a deal. More likely, they are preparing to offer up a negotiating table that Washington will find it difficult to ignore.”

In a series of posts on X, Greene stressed that “the availability of a negotiating table shouldn’t be confused with the availability of a deal,” and that Moscow has no interest in releasing its prisoners — but it is likely to "seek the highest possible price for its bargaining chips, and to seek additional concessions along the way just to keep the talks going.”

Washington “should obviously do what it can” to get Gershkovich, Kurmasheva, imprisoned opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza and other political prisoners out, he said, adding: “But if Moscow demands what it really wants — the abandonment of Ukraine — what then?”

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on April 1, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on April 1, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on May 31, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on May 31, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

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