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Analysis-From Meta to Microsoft, AI's big moment is here

By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) - Big Tech companies have a new obsession: artificial intelligence.

This week, chief executives across the sector packed earnings calls with mentions of the heavily hyped technology, which until recently existed more in the background than as a solid contributor to the bottom line.

In conference calls after financial results, tech execs uttered the phrases "AI," "generative AI," or "machine learning" from two to six times as often as they did in the previous quarter, according to a review of conference transcripts by Reuters.

Executives from Microsoft Corp and Alphabet Inc, behind the latest big rivalry in tech, took their battle to the conference-call front lines. On Thursday, Alphabet appeared to edge out the competition. The Google-owner's call referred to AI 45 times, up from 13 times at the end of the third quarter, outpacing Microsoft, whose call was peppered with 39 references, up from 15 in the previous quarter.

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The release of software that can generate virtually text and images, exemplified by ChatGPT, a chatbot from the startup OpenAI, has set off a race to integrate AI into more products and for investors to bet on which company will emerge on top.

Microsoft's investment in OpenAI and aggressive efforts to make ChatGPT widely available to its cloud customers, among other plans, represent a new challenge to Alphabet. Industry observers have said embedding human-like, ChatGPT-style responses in Microsoft's Bing search engine could give it a leg up on Alphabet's Google, long the information search leader.

In a potential nod to the public's ChatGPT fixation, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said Google remained in the game.

"We'll pursue this work boldly, but with a deep sense of responsibility," he said.

AI software will be an important focus for Alphabet, which is planning to make its own LaMDA chatbot software publicly available in the coming weeks, he added.

David Heger, an analyst with Edward Jones, said Google was opening up more about its large AI investments after staying quiet.

"They were much more vocal about how that benefits pretty much all parts of their business and how they expect that to be further integrated into their business going forward," he said.

SHAPING SOCIAL MEDIA

Snap Inc CEO Evan Spiegel said on the social media company's fourth-quarter call that generative AI would be critical over the next five years to growing augmented reality (AR), which is important to its business.

That technology, which overlays computerized images onto the real world, is currently limited because artists must build 3D models, but generative AI can speed up the process, Spiegel said.

"Imagine playing around with your kids wearing AR glasses and saying, 'oh my gosh, there's a pirate ship and a big monster.' We can bring those to life using generative (AI) art, which I think is really exciting," he said.

Mark Zuckerberg likewise called generative AI "an extremely exciting new area" on Wednesday during a conference call that referenced the phrase 30 times, up from 22 times in the previous quarter. The Facebook founder and CEO of Meta Platforms Inc, whose shares rocketed 20% after reporting financial results, said users could expect the company to "launch a number of different things this year" in generative AI.

Meta plans to incorporate the new technology across almost all its products, such as generating images, videos, avatars and 3D assets, Zuckerberg said. The software will help content creators produce more across Meta's apps, he added. And marketers could use generative AI to help with written copy for their paid posts or create imagery and video, Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president of the global business group for Meta, said in an interview.

"One of my goals for Meta is to build on our research to become a leader in generative AI," said Zuckerberg.

Even at Apple Inc, where hardware such as the iPhone has reigned supreme, AI is a big part of the future.

Asked by an analyst about Apple's AI strategy, Chief Executive Tim Cook said Thursday the company is using such tech to power features like car crash detection in its iPhone and Apple Watch, and that it will be applied throughout Apple's products and services.

"We see an enormous potential in this space to affect virtually everything we do," Cook said. "It's obviously a horizontal technology, not a vertical. And so it will affect every product and every service that we have."

(Reporting By Sheila Dang, Greg Bensinger, Stephen Nellis, Nivedita Balu, Tiyashi Datta, Chavi Mehta, Yuvraj Malik and Jeffrey Dastin; editing by Kenneth Li, Aditya Soni and Jonathan Oatis)