Vietnam is joining Asia’s rush to embrace ChatGPT, even though the Microsoft-backed AI bot has not launched in the country.
The excitement has spawned a cottage industry selling accounts that are meant to be free, while some of the country’s biggest companies are looking into the possibilities of a technology that composes emails, essays, code, and even news stories based on simple user prompts.
Dozens of Facebook groups devoted to OpenAI’s platform have sprung up in Vietnam, with one boasting 79,000 members.
Vietnam is far from alone in Asia in its embrace of ChatGPT. Chinese tech giants are scrambling to come up with their own versions, while India’s embattled billionaire Gautam Adani recently said he has “some addiction” to it.
In Vietnam, however, would-be users have to jump through hoops to access the service. It is one of three Southeast Asian countries where OpenAI, the U.S. developer, has not made ChatGPT available. That means accessing the service from Vietnam requires going through a virtual private network (VPN).
Hundreds of Vietnamese a day ask for help creating ChatGPT accounts, typically using a VPN, said Sonny Dang, who manages one such group. Dang doesn’t sell such services but said others charge USD 1 – 4 for it.
He estimates that less than 1% of Vietnam’s population of 100 million uses ChatGPT, drawn by the ability to save time, the ease of use and FOMO—the fear of missing out.
“I did wonder why it spread like a virus even though it gave some errors or funny answers,” he said of the technology, which is known for responding in a natural but not always accurate way to user prompts such as: “Tell me about Dostoyevsky in Vietnamese,” or simply, “asteroid.”
Dang said Vietnam’s news coverage ignited interest, too. Indeed, it quickly became a journalism trope globally, where it seems nine of every 10 stories about ChatGPT incorporate the app.
This is one of the nine. “ChatGPT has seen a surge in popularity in Vietnam in recent years,” the chatbot told Nikkei Asia. The sentence reads just fine, never mind the fact that the service debuted in November.
Statements like these demonstrate the tech’s limitations. Its algorithm is opaque, and its results are often plausible but wrong as they are based more on patterns of speech than real-world facts. News articles on tech trends, for example, often include the phrase “in recent years.”
But sometimes, it does get it right: “Companies in Vietnam are using ChatGPT-powered chatbots to provide customer support, while researchers are using it for natural language processing tasks.”
Vingroup, the country’s biggest private company, invests in VinFast electric cars, apartments, malls, and schools. Its new VinUniversity is weighing how to apply ChatGPT in the classroom or research. Dang, a serial entrepreneur, co-founded LovinBot, a Vietnamese writing assistant that he is now refurbishing with ChatGPT. Cybersecurity company Bkav and property outfit Max Land discussed the technology’s possible uses on national TV.
Gaming unicorn VNG, software giant FPT and other organizations are doubling down on machine learning more generally, a topic that Samsung’s new USD 220 million research center in Hanoi is also focusing on.
“All the major Vietnamese big-tech companies have AI development,” Kok Seng Kiong, an innovation program manager at RMIT University Vietnam, told Nikkei.
The country’s digital economy by 2025 will have Southeast Asia’s top growth rate, 31%, according to a report by Temasek, Google, and Bain. Kok alluded to its young population, which is receptive to tech, especially free inventions more likely to reach developing nations.
“It does feel as though ChatGPT is an opportunity for the development of the skills and knowledge base within Vietnam,” he said.
Yet Dang finds the platform doesn’t hold up as well in Vietnamese as in English.
A key hurdle to improved results is not only the quantity of big data—the lifeblood of ChatGPT or any machine learning—but also the type of data. One tech executive said “China’s heavy censorship of cyberspace” makes it hard to create AI-generated content. It is an obstacle that also applies to Vietnam’s intensely censored internet.
“It writes Vietnamese really well, like a natural speaker,” Dang said of ChatGPT. “But the more you play with it, try it out, [the more] you see its limitations.”
It’s the world’s fastest-growing consumer software in history, with fans like Adani, who posted about his fascination with the app on LinkedIn. Searches for “ChatGPT Vietnam” return 13.5 million results on Google, which introduced Bard in its existential fight against Microsoft search engine Bing, set to be powered by ChatGPT.
This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.