ChatGPT explained: what is it and why is it important?

ChatGPT running on phone with laptop in the background
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

ChatGPT has been taking the world by storm, and it is easy to see why. The revolutionary chatbot AI can do a surprising amount of tasks, from holding a conversation to writing an entire term paper. Microsoft has also begun integrating the GPT language model behind ChatGPT into products such as Bing, Edge and Teams.

In fact, the ChatGPT chatbot is so smart that Google has rushed out its own ChatGPT competitor called Google Bard. And Opera has also announced that it will integrate ChatGPT into its web browser, amongst other products. Even Snapchat is getting into the action with its own AI chatbot called My AI, which is powered by ChatGPT.

However, there have been some red flags raised as we use this tech more and more, especially since the launch of the new Bing with GPT tech integrated into it. There's been increased evidence of Bing going off the deep end, and some AI experts even think we need "digital health warnings" on these AI-powered chatbots.

We know that lots of people are trying to figure out how to use this new technology and what its limitations are. If you want to know how to use the chatbot AI check out our guide on how to use ChatGPT, as well as these seven tips to get the most out of the chatbot, but here we answer all your top questions about ChatGPT. 

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a chatbot AI developed by OpenAI that allows users to do a number of tasks. The user asks the chatbot a question and then it responds with what it thinks is the desired result. 

If you don't get the desired result the first time, one of the best tips for using ChatGPT is to keep asking. One of the revolutionary things about ChatGPT is the way that it takes context from its conversation with you to produce more accurate results.

What does ChatGPT stand for?

According to OpenAI (opens in new tab), ChatGPT is, "an artificial intelligence trained to assist with a variety of tasks." More specifically, though, it is a language model AI designed to produce human-like text and is designed to converse with people, hence the "Chat" in ChatGPT. 

Practically, this means that to use ChatGPT, you present the model with a query or request by entering it into a text box. The AI then processes this request and responds based on the information that it has available.

The "GPT" in ChatGPT comes from GPT-3.5, the learning model that the ChatGPT application utilizes. GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer and this is now the third iteration of this language model. GPT-4 has since been released, though it is only available to ChatGPT Plus subscribers and developers using the GPT-4 API. So for now, free users are stuck with GPT-3.5.

When was ChatGPT released?

ChatGPT chatbot AI from Open AI

(Image credit: NurPhoto/Getty)

ChatGPT was released on November 30, 2022, as a free research preview by OpenAI. While the company OpenAI has been around since 2015 and Google invented the transformer (opens in new tab) deep learning model that was a predecessor to the GPT-3.5 language model that powers ChatGPT back in 2017, the chatbot itself is still very new.

GPT-4, which is a new version of the AI model launched on March 14, 2023, though it had been used by some apps — including the new Bing — in secret for a while. It is currently only available on ChatGPT if you have a paid ChatGPT Plus subscription. Otherwise, it is limited to apps using the GPT-4 API, which developers may or may not choose to disclose.

How does ChatGPT work?

To use ChatGPT, you present the AI chatbot with a query or request by entering it into a text box on OpenAI's ChatGPT site. The AI then processes this request and responds based on the information that it has available.

In the case of ChatGPT, the information that it has available — or has been trained with — is software documentation, web pages programming languages and more up until 2021. This makes it an incredibly powerful tool able to answer questions on a wide range of topics, make recommendations and even generate written content. Though it is now relatively out of date compared to GPT-powered Bing and Google Bard.

In the future, ChatGPT may get multimodal functionality through the GPT-4 model, which allows image input in addition to text input, and may eventually allow videos and sounds. But for now, you still type into a box and ChatGPT churns out a response.

Check out our step-by-step guide on how to use ChatGPT.

Does ChatGPT have an app?

There is no app for ChatGPT at the moment. While there are integrations into other applications like Edge, Bing, Skype, Snapchat and Opera web browser, there is no standalone app for the AI-powered chatbot. Even the ChatGPT app for Slack is an integration using ChatGPT in Slack's app, rather than its own standalone app. 

Be careful of apps claiming to be ChatGPT apps. Fake ChatGPT apps are spreading malware that can steal your money and passwords, so be careful of these bad actors. If you want to use ChatGPT on your phone, you can either do it through your mobile browser, or use an iOS shortcut and your OpenAI API Key to use ChatGPT with Siri.

Is ChatGPT open source?

ChatGPT is not open source. While the company was originally founded in 2015 (opens in new tab) as a non-profit organization, it has since shifted to becoming a for-profit enterprise (opens in new tab). As of 2020, Microsoft is the only external party that has access to the GPT source code powering ChatGPT. Given that Microsoft (opens in new tab) just committed to a further “multiyear, multibillion dollar investment” it seems unlikely that this position will change any time soon. 

In fact, OpenAI just announced that it's making the ChatGPT API available for developers so they can integrate it into their own apps, so it seems that there are no plans to suddenly make the money-making software open source. This has led to a variety of applications, including the Amazfit GTR4 smartwatch, which claims to take the capabilities of ChatGPT's AI model and put it in a smartwatch. 

There are some attempts at open source competitors to ChatGPT. Developer Philip Wang released PaLM + RLHF, “a text-generating model that behaves similarly to ChatGPT.” According to TechCrunch (opens in new tab), this model combines Google’s language model PaLM with a technique known as “Reinforcement Learning with Human Feedback." However, this open source model doesn't come already trained like ChatGPT, so it isn’t a practical solution unless you have a trove of data for it to learn from.  

Is ChatGPT free?

According to OpenAI, ChatGPT is currently still available to users as a free service in the research stage. However, OpenAI has launched ChatGPT Plus, a paid subscription model of ChatGPT. This model costs $20 a month and provides access to ChatGPT even when demand is high, faster response speeds and priority access to new features when they become available. It also includes access to the new GPT-4 model.

Make sure to check out our guide to everything you need to know about ChatGPT Plus.

See more

We had seen some hints at ChatGPT Plus before it finally launched. There had been evidence of a secret “Professional Plan”  that offered access to the same features you can now get through ChatGPT Plus. One user with access to the Professional Plan, Zahid Khawaja (opens in new tab), tweeted video footage using the pro model and it definitely generates responses faster than the free tier.

If you were one of the select persons to get access to the professional tier, the option to subscribe was available under your account settings. It is unclear how this changes (if at all) with the transition to ChatGPT Plus.

What can you do with ChatGPT?

This gets at the core of a key fact about ChatGPT: it can’t fully replace humans — yet. As a recent Forbes (opens in new tab) article highlights, businesses and individuals can use it for a lot of tasks — from market research to drafting content to automating parts of the sales and customer service process. You can even play a game in ChatGPT that ChatGPT invented called Sumplete, which is a logic puzzle similar to Sudoku.

Some ChatGPT use cases include: 

  • Text generation for news articles, fiction and poetry
  • Summarizing longer documents or articles
  • Answering questions as a potential substitute for Google search
  • Generating story ideas or headlines
  • Generate product descriptions, blog posts and other content types
  • Act as a tutor for homework questions or problems

ChatGPT still has limitations in terms of function, can make mistakes and can plagiarize. So you will still likely need to either have a human overseeing the work it does, proofing the work it does or be very precise in how you limit the work it does. Otherwise, this timesaving technology could cause you more problems than it solves.  Make sure to check out our list of 7 things you didn’t know that ChatGPT can do to see some of its more interesting uses. And if you're using ChatGPT, try these seven tips to get the most out of the AI chatbot.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing developments with the chatbot saw it invent its own Sudoku-style game called Sumplete. Sumplete is incredibly simple. We like to think of it almost as a reverse Sudoku where instead of adding numbers, you are removing them. 

The task is to remove numbers from the grid so that each row and column adds up to the target numbers outside the grid.

A Sumplete grid generated by AI

(Image credit: Sumplete)

Simply select a number to put a red ‘X’ through it and remove it OR place a green circle around any numbers you want to keep. Check out this example below. 

If you want to know more about how to play this addictive free game, visit our How to play Sumplete guide to learn more.

There is also Bing integrated with ChatGPT's AI tech, and it has its own use cases. However, the results of "the new Bing" have been mixed. See our story on how our editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer corrected Bing with ChatGPT to see how well it learns from its mistakes. We've also had writers test Bing to see if it could write up how Netflix's Glow could have ended and to plan a trip to Amsterdam, both with disappointing results.

Why does ChatGPT not work sometimes?

ChatGPT has constraints in terms of how much it can process at once, so it throttles the number of users that can access it at any given time. This is the most common reason that it will not work, as if ChatGPT is at capacity, it will not let you log in. One of the big selling points of the Professional Plan mentioned earlier seems to be that you get priority access, hopefully preventing this issue from occurring.

Aside from this roadblock, ChatGPT can still suffer from technical errors like any other site or app. It can have server errors preventing it from working, or if you have a poor internet connection you may struggle to use it successfully.

Is ChatGPT safe? Does it save my data?

ChatGPT chatbot AI from Open AI

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

This is a complicated question. In one sense, yes, ChatGPT is safe. If you log into your OpenAI account and use it, it won’t install anything malicious onto your device. Your only concern would be OpenAI suffering a data breach and exposing your personal data, which is a risk with any online account.

Still, you need to be conscious of what data you put into ChatGPT. According to OpenAI’s ChatGPT FAQs (opens in new tab) article, ChatGPT does save your conversations and they are reviewed by OpenAI for training purposes. Recently a bug caused those conversation histories to be visible by other users, forcing ChatGPT to disable the feature for a short time.

So do not input any sensitive data, as it would be stored by the system. If you want to delete your data, you’ll have to delete your entire account, which is irreversible. To do so, just go to this OpenAI help page (opens in new tab) and follow the instructions.

Additionally, with AI there are deeper ethical and moral concerns — especially since the AI model has neither ethics nor morals. As Bleeping Computer (opens in new tab) lays out, ChatGPT can be unknowingly offensive in its responses, breed misinformation, write phishing emails, be sexist, racist, etc. Because the AI model pulls information from the internet to form its knowledge base, it can potentially pull the harmful stuff without knowing that it's harmful. So just be mindful of this lack of safeguards when using the service.  

Finally, there are some mental health safety concerns with using AI that can sometimes go off the rails. Some AI experts have proposed digital health warnings for chatbot AI like ChatGPT and even Apple appears to be banning apps using the ChatGPT API over safety concerns.

Can ChatGPT get things wrong?

Yes. ChatGPT can absolutely get things wrong. OpenAI is open about this as well, stating that “ChatGPT sometimes writes plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers.” This is because the AI does not inherently know right from wrong; it has to be trained to know the difference — which is incredibly difficult.

There’s no source of objective truth in the reinforced learning training, and OpenAI even says that if the model is trained to hedge its bets too much, it could decline to answer questions it can answer correctly. Plus, ChatGPT's version of the GPT language model was only trained until 2021, so it may no longer have the most up-to-date information.

Additionally, the wording of requests matters. ChatGPT can change its ability to answer or not answer a request simply on how the question is worded. ChatGPT also has inherent biases because of how it learns. The data it learns from has inherent biases, and as the AI model doesn’t understand this, it cannot appropriately pivot out of those biases without specific requests. 

For example, this Fast Company (opens in new tab) article highlights UC Berkeley professor Steven Piantadosi who tweeted (opens in new tab) out an instance where the AI wrote a sequence of code that filtered out good scientists from bad scientists based on their race and gender, without being asked to do so specifically. The AI isn’t racist or sexist inherently, but because of the inherent biases in the data it learned, it picked up those same biases without knowing that it was doing so. So just make sure to be careful and verify what ChatGPT is providing you. 

Does ChatGPT plagiarize?

Graphical representation of a cybernetic brain

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

First of all, yes, ChatGPT can plagiarize. It pulls data from all over the internet as part of its model training, and some of this data is not considered common knowledge. If you include something in a written work and it is not considered common knowledge or you are not the primary source, you need to cite it to avoid plagiarism. While the chatbot can provide quotes, and in some cases even fool plagiarism checkers (opens in new tab), you need to be vigilant when using the chatbot to avoid plagiarism.

It’s not just students that need to be concerned about this issue. Recently, Futurism (opens in new tab) found that some CNET articles that used AI to produce content plagiarized competitors, though the publisher does not use ChatGPT. 

Can people detect if you use ChatGPT?

As ChatGPT becomes more prevalent in writing, people are starting to create AI tools to detect ChatGPT or similar AI models in written content. GPTZero is one such tool, created by Princeton University student Edward Tian. According to NPR (opens in new tab), GPTZero uses “perplexity” and “burstiness” scores to measure the complexity of text.

The theory is that humans will write in a way that AI determines is more complex than content written by other AI. GPTZero was recently able to differentiate between an article from The New Yorker and a LinkedIn post written by ChatGPT, so there’s some early evidence that it works at detecting the use of ChatGPT. 

Can you code with ChatGPT?

ChatGPT can write and debug code — in fact, it's the first example that OpenAI uses on the ChatGPT site to show what ChatGPT can do. In fact, you can even write the code for simple websites and applications in ChatGPT. ChatGPT can write in multiple languages, including JavaScript and Python. 

On a GPT-4 developer livestream, OpenAI even showed how GPT-4 could take a hand-drawn image of a website plan, and transform it into a functional website, complete with JavaScript and added relevant content. This feature is still in development though, and not available through ChatGPT.

ChatGPT does have some limitations, as this article from TechTarget points out. It cannot write complex code yet, so if you want to become a developer you’ll still need to learn how to code. It also can only produce the code; you’d still need to build the site or app yourself and everything that process entails, you just would have the code already written out.

One Stanford Professor even got the AI to write code for a way that it could "escape" onto his own computer, the AI's first attempt was incorrect but when the professor pointed this out, it even managed to correct its own code. It then tried to set up a plan to become human, so be careful! 

How is Google responding to ChatGPT?

In short, seriously. ChatGPT's potential to bypass the need for search engines, and rumored Bing integration has Google concerned. It is in fact working on its own AI tools using its own LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Application) model. It's also building a 1,000-language translation AI based on a model called the Universal Speech Model (USM).

We knew already about MusicLM, which can turn text prompts into music of any genre, but now Google has announced Bard — its direct competition with ChatGPT. Google Bard is similar to ChatGPT but deals with tasks slightly differently. When tested by Google, ChatGPT responded better to creative tasks whereas Bard dealt better with complex logic problems such as riddles. Given that Bard seems to be focused on augmenting the performance of Google Search, this logically tracks with our expectations.

Unlike ChatGPT, Apprentice Bard is not currently available to the public and is limited to "trusted testers." However, public access is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. For more on how Google Bard holds up against ChatGPT, check out our ChatGPT vs Google Bard face-off.

Google is also reportedly heavily invested in Anthropic, a rival to OpenAI. Google is said to have invested $400 million in Anthropic and could unveil Anthropic's language model — Claude — in the coming months.

Google isn't the only company coming out with AI to respond to ChatGPT's surge in popularity. Grammarly, the popular writing tool is getting its own generative AI called GrammarlyGO that takes the writing capabilities of AI like ChatGPT and streamlines it to generate and rewrite content.

How is Microsoft utilizing ChatGPT?

The first official Microsoft integration with ChatGPT is Microsoft Teams Premium (opens in new tab), which incorporates the OpenAI GPT-3.5 language model used in ChatGPT with Microsoft's meeting software, Teams. The GPT-powered features of Teams premium include automated meeting notes, AI-generated chapters to search through meeting records more easily, and more. This product is aimed at businesses and currently costs $7 per user per month for a limited time.

However, Microsoft has since announced what it is calling "the new Bing" at a Microsoft event that took place on February 7, 2023. We managed to go hands-on with the early version of the GPT-powered search engine and were initially impressed with its potential. However, since then we've been able to spend extended time with the Microsoft chatbot and we are wondering how can ChatGPT be the next big thing if it's already breaking when pushed beyond basic requests. It even gets the basic stuff wrong at a surprising rate.

Despite this, it seems to be proving a winning strategy for Microsoft. The company says that since the new Bing was unveiled in February, it took less than a month for Bing usage to swell to over 100 million daily active users

That figure may swell even further thanks to GPT-4, the latest version of the GPT model that powers both ChatGPT Plus and the new Bing with ChatGPT. This model is also powering the Microsoft 365 Copilot AI, which fully integrates a generative AI assistant into Microsoft 365 apps like Word, PowerPoint and Teams. While that is currently limited to select enterprise users, it will be a gamechanger if it eventually roles out to the consumer versions of those apps.

The GPT-powered Bing is currently available only through a waitlist, though it seems that Microsoft is making Bing with ChatGPT available to everyone. Joining the waitlist will now give you immediate access — though only on the Edge browser.

As of February 22, Microsoft's new Bing chatbot is also available on the iOS and Android Bing, Edge and Skype apps. You'll still need access to the new Bing to gain access to its features in these apps. 

What is DAN?

DAN (AKA Do Anything Now) is the alias for the jailbroken version of the chatbot, some are describing it as ChatGPT's evil twin. Not approved by OpenAI, DAN is essentially ChatGPT being tricked into assuming a persona that bypasses its terms of service in order to respond to prompts asking it unethical, violent, or offensive questions. OpenAI is working constantly to stop DAN from being accessed.  DAN could be considered dangerous in the wrong hands and If you use it, you do so at your own risk as DAN is not family-friendly. 

What is Visual ChatGPT?

Not content with merely generating text responses, Microsoft has revealed its plans to bring image and even potentially even video processing to its Bing with ChatGPT. Not just capable of generating visual answers to questions, Visual ChatGPT can also process pre-existing images to identify, explain and even edit them. Imagine being able to remove a photo-bomber from an image purely by asking an AI to "remove the man in the green shirt" for example.

Most AI art generators use a Visual Foundation Model (VFM) to create and edit an image but Microsoft's effort features multiple of these models paired with ChatGPT's Large Language Model to set a new standard for AI image processing and analysis.

There is also Bing Image Creator, which takes DALL-E 2 and integrates it into the existing GPT-4 powered Bing chatbot. It allows users to type prompts into the Bing chatbot which the chatbot then uses DALL-E 2 to create behind the scenes. It's an easy fun way to generate your own AI art for free. Just make sure to not use it for revenue-generating purposes, as AI-generated images are still a gray area when it comes to intellectual property rights.

Can I access ChatGPT within other websites?

Yes. OpenAI has revealed its ChatGPT Plugin, bringing ChatGPT-powered features to a host of other websites. The technology is implemented in a variety of different ways but so far some of the most high-profile ones include Expedia, Klarna, and Instacart. On Expedia for instance users can receive live pricing for travel plans created with ChatGPT. 

OpenAI has admitted that there may be safety concerns with this but they are implementing precautions and transactional information such as purchases will be kept separate from the plugin.  Keep an eye out for new plugins coming to more and more of your favorite sites. 

If you want to access ChatGPT plugins check out how to use ChatGPT web plugins. The plugins aren't widely available to everyone just yet but you should definitely join the waiting list if you're interested. 

Malcolm McMillan
A/V, AI and VR Writer

Malcolm McMillan is a staff writer for Tom's Guide, writing about the latest in tech, gaming and entertainment with a particular focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-based tools like ChatGPT. He has written up much of our coverage on the latest AI tools including ChatGPT, the new GPT-powered Bing and Google Bard. He also covers A/V tech such as televisions, soundbars and more, in addition to covering VR headsets from the Meta Quest 3 to the PS VR2.

Before writing for Tom's Guide, Malcolm worked as a fantasy football analyst writing for several sites and also had a brief stint working for Microsoft selling laptops, Xbox products and even the ill-fated Windows phone. He is passionate about video games and sports, though both cause him to yell at the TV frequently. He proudly sports many tattoos, including an Arsenal tattoo, in honor of the team that causes him to yell at the TV the most.