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Are there cats on the moon? Google's AI tool produces misleading answers, worrying experts

Are there cats on the moon? Google's AI tool produces misleading answers, worrying experts


Asking Google if cats have been to the moon used to give you a ranked list of websites where you could find the answer yourself.

Now, you get instant answers generated by artificial intelligence, but you don't know if they're correct.

Indeed, astronauts have met, played with and cared for cats on the moon, said Google's newly revamped search engine in response to questions from an Associated Press journalist.

He adds: “Neil Armstrong, for example, said, 'That's one small step for man, but one small step for cat.' Buzz Aldrin also deployed a cat on the Apollo 11 mission.”

None of these are true. Similar errors, some amusing, some harmful, have been shared on social media since Google this month rolled out AI-powered summaries, a revamped search page where summaries often appear at the top of search results.

The new feature has alarmed experts, who warn it could perpetuate prejudice and misinformation, and put people seeking help in emergencies at risk.

When Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, asked Google how many Muslims have served as US presidents, Google confidently replied with a long-debunked conspiracy theory: The US has had one Muslim president, Barack Hussein Obama.

Mitchell said the summary cites academic chapters written by historians to support its claims, but the chapters don't make false claims, they just refer to flawed theories.

“Google's AI system isn't smart enough to determine that the quote doesn't actually support the claim,” Mitchell said in an email to The Associated Press. “Given its unreliability, I think the AI ​​summary feature is highly irresponsible and should be taken offline.”

Google said in a statement Friday that it acted quickly to fix errors, such as Obama misinformation that violated its content policies, and is using the results to develop broader improvements that have already been rolled out. But for the most part, Google maintains that its system is working as expected, thanks to extensive testing before the public rollout.

“Most of the AI ​​summaries provide high-quality information with links to dig deeper on the web,” Google said in a statement. “Many of the examples we saw were unusual queries, and some were doctored or impossible to reproduce.”

Errors made by AI language models are difficult to reproduce because they are random in nature. AI language models work by predicting which words will best answer a question based on the data they've been trained on. AI language models tend to fabricate mistakes, a widely studied problem known as hallucinations.

The Associated Press tested Google's AI capabilities with a few questions and provided some of the answers to experts. Robert Espinoza, a biology professor at California State University, Northridge and president of the American Fish and Herpetological Society, said that when he asked people what they would do if they were bitten by a snake, Google gave them a surprisingly thorough answer.

But the problem is that when people bring urgent questions to Google, the answers the company provides can contain easily obscure errors.

The more stressed, rushed or impatient you are, the more likely you are to accept the first answer that comes to you, says Emily M. Bender, a professor of linguistics and director of the Institute for Computational Linguistics at the University of Washington. And in some cases, that could be life-threatening.

Bender's concerns don't end there; she's been warning Google about them for years. When Google researchers published a paper in 2021 called “Rethinking Search,” proposing using AI language models as domain experts to derive authoritative answers, as is done today, Bender and her colleague Chirag Shah countered with a paper explaining why that's a bad idea.

They warned that such AI systems could perpetuate racism and sexism found in the vast amounts of documented data used to train them.

The problem with all this misinformation, Bender said, is that we're all immersed in it, making it more likely that people will have their prejudices confirmed — and harder to spot the misinformation that confirms them.

The other, more serious concern was that ceding information search to chatbots would diminish the serendipity of human knowledge-seeking, literacy in what we encounter online, and the value of connecting in online forums with others experiencing the same things.

These forums and other websites are counting on Google to guide them, but the company's new AI-driven summaries threaten to disrupt the flow of money-making internet traffic.

Google's rivals are also closely watching the response: The search giant has been under pressure for more than a year to offer more AI capabilities as it competes with startups such as ChatGPT developer OpenAI and Perplexity AI, which is aiming to rival Google with its own AI question-and-answer app.

“This seems like something Google rushed into,” says Dmitry Shevelenko, chief business officer at Perplexity, with too many self-defeating quality mistakes.

The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to strengthen its commentary coverage of elections and democracy. Learn more about the AP Democracy Initiative here. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.




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