Google Home, the search giant's answer to the lackluster Amazon Echo, has some fascinating opinions when quizzed on former President Barack Obama's plans for the country, and other subjects. According to an article by Quartz, when directly questioned, Google Home will inform you that Barack Obama may "in fact be planning a Communist coup d'etat at the end of his term," is "in bed with the Communist Chinese," intends to institute martial law, and more.
The device also reports that "Yes, Republicans = Nazis," five former U.S. presidents were members of the KKK, and that Obama is the "king of the United States." That last is drawn from a Breitbart article from 2014.
According to SearchEngineLand's Danny Sullivan, the problem is with what he calls Google's "One True Answer" algorithm.
"One True Answer," officially known as Snippets, is the system which pops up quick facts when you type something into Google; ask about Switzerland, and you're told it's a country in Europe and given salient facts. Ask who won Best Actor in 2017, and you're told it's Casey Affleck, for Manchester by the Sea. It's incredibly useful - when you're looking for simple answers to basic questions, or quick information on people, places, etc.
The problem comes when you ask more complex questions. Google draws its Snippet answer from its top ten search results, and that's fine when one is looking for Oscar winners or the population of Sweden. But it tends to fall apart when asked subjective questions, often pulling a response that amounts to fake news, highlighting it in such a way as to make it seem official.
Google Home compounds the problem.For those not in the know, Google Home is the latest in a series of "smart speakers" being developed by major companies, able to switch music on the fly, answer simple questions, and perform other tasks. The Amazon Echo, which answers to the name Alexa, is billed as a home automation hub, able to control other smart devices by voice. But when asked a complex question, Alexa typically reports that it "can't find the answer." Google Home, on the other hand, uses Google's extremely robust search engine, and attempts to answer everything - you may have already experienced this with Google's Android-based Google Now. And it pulls the answer to any question from the Snippet.
Unfortunately, this is leading to more than a few embarrassing situations for Google, as unlike the web-based application, the Snippet answer is the only answer that end-users get. Ask Google if Obama is planning a coup (and it's apparently a popular search right now) and immediately beneath the incriminating Snippet is an ABC News story debunking it. But Home doesn't provide that context, cheerfully announcing that Obama and Communist China are on the way to take over America.Among some of the more interesting results uncovered by Sullivan and The Guardian: dinosaurs are a plot to "indoctrinate" children into believing in science, all women are evil and "[have] some degree of prostitute in" them, Muslims are bad, Islam must be destroyed, and "Hitler was one of the good guys."
The Outline's Adrianne Jeffries says that "Google's featured Snippets are worse than fake news," unintentionally granting legitimacy to outright falsehoods. "What is ANTIFA?" brings back an answer from an Australian white nationalist Facebook page. "MSG dangers" presents an article full of thoroughly-debunked pseudoscience from an "alternative health" site. And "Why are firetrucks red?" returns the script of a Monty Python sketch.
This is all problematic for Google overall, which has been experiencing embarrassment caused by Snippets ever since introducing the system in 2014. But with Google Home adding an extra layer between "alternative fact" and fact-checking, the problem is getting worse, and there ironically doesn't seem to be an easy answer for Google.
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