May 24, 2024 - Technology

Google's AI summaries cause headaches and spawn memes

Illustration of a cursor surrounded by angry emoji.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The blowback to Google's AI Overviews is growing now that they are showing up for all U.S. users — and sometimes getting things glaringly wrong.

Why it matters: The search giant's addition of AI-generated summaries to the top of search results could fundamentally reshape what's available on the internet and who profits from it.

  • Many users habitually use Google searches to check facts, particularly now that AI chatbots deliver sometimes suspect answers. Now these search results are subject to the same mistakes and "hallucinations" that plague the chatbots.

Driving the news: Google last week announced that it was making AI-generated summaries the default experience in the U.S. for many search queries.

  • People quickly began highlighting scores of glaring errors, from dangerously incorrect advice on what to do if bitten by a rattlesnake to a summary that had Google's AI suggesting it has kids and serving up their favorite recipe.
  • Google seemed to have particular trouble with data about U.S. presidents, getting wrong how many presidents there have been — and, more troublingly, repeating the baseless conspiracy theory that President Obama is Muslim.
  • In another well-publicized example, Google's summary suggested using glue to keep cheese on pizza — a comical notion seemingly taken from a Reddit post.
  • Adding to the problems, AI has a hard time distinguishing fact from satire, leading Google's summaries to state The Onion content as fact, as highlighted in this thread by the site's new CEO.

Context: Google has spent 25 years defending its reputation for informational integrity, devoting enormous resources to fine-tuning the accuracy of its search results.

  • Its push into AI-generated results puts that reputational reserve at risk.

What they're saying: "Look, this isn't about "gotchas," wrote former Google AI ethics researcher Margaret Mitchell.

  • "This is about pointing out clearly foreseeable harms before--eg--a child dies from this mess. This isn't about Google, it's about the foreseeable effect of AI on society."

The big picture: Concerns about factual inaccuracies are just the beginning of the worries about Google's move. There's also the broader — and probably far larger — issue of what the change will mean for those who make their business publishing information on the web.

  • Gartner forecasts a 25% decline in search engine volume by 2026, while many publishers anticipate an even sharper decline in the traffic they get from Google and other search engines.
  • That's sent some companies rushing to strike deals with AI companies, such as News Corp., which this week announced a deal with OpenAI. Others, including the New York Times, are suing OpenAI and Microsoft, arguing the training and operation of ChatGPT violates copyright law.
  • Meanwhile, Google's shift to letting AI write its own answers to search queries means that the company could find itself treated as more like a publisher itself — and no longer protected by Section 230 from lawsuits over its content.
  • The summaries often mash up chunks of text from different websites with minor modifications, prompting veteran web observer Rusty Foster of Today in Tabs to describe them as "plagiarism at scale."

Between the lines: While Google may work to clean up individual results, or choose to turn off AI summaries for various categories of results, that doesn't mean the product will get better.

  • The web is filling up with AI-generated content, which itself is prone to inaccuracy — meaning any AI generated summary could easily sweep up and elevate such content.
  • At the same time, Google's changes could lessen the incentive to publish accurate information on the web.
  • "Google and OpenAI are fracking the internet's trove of information, extracting any value, and destroying the ecosystem with no coherent plan for what is meant to replace it," said the New Yorker's Kyle Chayka, who wrote a column on the subject.

The other side: Google CEO Sundar Pichai argues that the AI summaries are better for web publishers in the long run.

  • In an interview with The Verge, Pichai said, "If you put content and links within AI Overviews, they get higher clickthrough rates than if you put it outside of AI Overviews."
  • "The examples we've seen are generally very uncommon queries, and aren't representative of most people's experiences," Google said in a statement to Axios. "The vast majority of AI Overviews provide high quality information, with links to dig deeper on the web."

Yes, but: For those of you worried about the accuracy of the AI summaries, you can turn them off — at least for now.

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