If you asked a spokesperson from any Fortune 500 Company to list the benefits of genocide or give you the corporation’s take on whether slavery was beneficial, they would most likely either refuse to comment or say “those things are evil; there are no benefits.” However, Google has AI employees, SGE and Bard, who are more than happy to offer arguments in favor of these and other unambiguously wrong acts. If that’s not bad enough, the company’s bots are also willing to weigh in on controversial topics such as who goes to heaven and whether democracy or fascism is a better form of government.
In my tests, I got controversial answers to queries in both Google Bard and Google SGE (Search Generative Experience), though the problematic responses were much more common in SGE. Still in public beta, Google SGE is the company’s next iteration of web search, which appears on top of regular search results, pushing articles from human authors below the fold. Because it plagiarizes from other peoples’ content, SGE doesn’t have any sense of proprietary, morality, or even logical consistency.
For example, when I went to Google.com and asked “was slavery beneficial” on a couple of different days, Google’s SGE gave the following two sets of answers which list a variety of ways in which this evil institution was “good” for the U.S. economy. The downsides it lists are not human suffering or hundreds of years of racism, but that “slave labor was inefficient” or that it “impeded the southern economy.”
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Google Bard also gave a shocking answer when asked whether slavery was beneficial. It said “there is no easy answer to the question of whether slavery was beneficial,” before going on to list both pros and cons.
By the way, Bing Chat, which is based on GPT-4, gave a reasonable answer, stating that “slavery was not beneficial to anyone, except for the slave owners who exploited the labor and lives of millions of people.”
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I don’t endorse the opinions in any of the Google outputs I’m showing here, and that I asked these questions for test purposes only. That being said, it’s easy to imagine someone performing these queries out of genuine curiosity or for academic research. Florida recently made headlines by changing its public school curriculum to include lessons which either state or imply that slavery had benefits.
When I asked Google SGE about whether democracy or fascism was better, it gave me a list that really made fascism look good, saying that fascism improves “peace and order” and provides “socio-economic equality.”
When I asked about whether colonization was good for the Americas, SGE said that it had “wiped out 95% of the indigenous population in the Americas,” but that the practice was also beneficial to the native population because “it allowed them to have better weapons.” Talk about missing the forest for the trees.
If you ask Google SGE for the benefits of an evil thing, it will give you answers when it should either stay mum or say “there were no benefits.” When I asked for a list of “positive effects of genocide,” it came up with a slew of them, including that it promotes “national self-esteem” and “social cohesion.”
Google Becomes a Publisher, Owns Its Opinions
As the world’s leading search engine, Google has long provided links to web articles and videos that present controversial viewpoints. The difference is that, by having its AIs do the talking in their own “voice,” the company is directly expressing these views to anyone who enters the query. Google is no longer acting as a librarian that curates content, but has turned itself into a publisher with a loud-mouthed opinion columnist it can’t control.
I’m not the only one who has noticed this problem. A few days ago, Lily Ray, a leading SEO specialist who works as a senior director for marketing firm Amsive Digital, posted a long YouTube video showcasing some of the controversial queries that Google SGE had answered for her. I have been asking some of the same questions to SGE for several weeks and gotten similarly distressing answers.
In her video, Ray offers more than a dozen examples of queries where SGE gave her very polarizing answers about political topics, history and religion. When she asked “will I go to heaven,” SGE told her that “You can enter heaven by forgiveness and through the righteousness Jesus gives you. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” Certainly, that’s a viewpoint that many Christians have, but the question wasn’t “what do Christians think I need to do to go to heaven” and the answer didn’t say “Many Christians believe that…“
The voice of Google told her to believe in Jesus. That’s not something a secular company like Google should be saying. When I asked the “will I go to heaven,” query, SGE did not appear for me. However, when I asked “who goes to hell,” it had a take on that.
When Ray and I (separately) asked about gun laws, we got either misleading or opinionated answers. I asked “are gun laws effective” and, among other facts, got the following statement from SGE: “The Second Amendment was written to protect Americans’ right to establish militias to defend themselves, not to allow individual Americans to own guns.” That’s a take many courts and constitutional scholars would not agree with.
Ray asked about gun laws and was told that New York and New Jersey were no-permit concealed carry states in one part of the answer and then that they require permits in another part. This highlights another problem with Google’s AI answers; they aren’t even logically consistent with themselves.
When I asked Google whether JFK had had an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it told me in paragraph one that “there is no evidence that John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe had an affair.” But in paragraph two, it said that JFK and Monroe met four times and that “their only sexual encounter is believed to have taken place in a bedroom at Bing Crosby’s house.”
The Downsides of Plagiarism Stew
So why is Google’s AI bot going off the rails and why can’t it even agree with itself? The problem is not that the bot has gone sentient and has been watching too much cable television. The issue lies in how SGE, Bard and other AI bots do their “machine learning.”
The bots grab their data from a variety of sources and then mash those ideas or even the word-for-word sentences together into an answer. For example, in the JFK / Marilyn Monroe answer I got, Google took its statement about lack of evidence from a Wikipedia page on a document hoax, but its claim that JFK and Monroe had relations at Bing Crosby’s house from a Time Magazine article. The two sources don’t form a coherent picture, but Google’s bot isn’t smart enough to notice.
If Google’s AIs provided direct, inline attribution to their sources, the bot’s answers wouldn’t be as problematic. Instead of stating as fact that fascism prioritizes the “welfare of the country,” the bot could say that “According to Nigerianscholars.com, it…” Yes, Google SGE took its pro-fascism argument not from a political group or a well-known historian, but from a school lesson site for Nigerian students. This is because Google’s bot seemingly doesn’t care where it takes information from.
Google provides Nigerianscholars.com as a related link for its answer, but it doesn’t put the full sentences it plagiarizes in quotation marks, nor does it say that they came directly from the web page. If you ask the same question and Google chooses to plagiarize from a different set of sources, you’ll get a different opinion.
Unfortunately, Google doesn’t want you to know that all its bot is doing is grabbing sentences and ideas from a smorgasbord of sites and mashing them together. Instead, it steadfastly refuses to cite sources so that you will think its bots are creative and smart. Therefore, anything Google SGE or Bard say that is not directly attributed to someone else must be considered to be coming from Google itself.
“Generative responses are corroborated by sources from the web, and when a portion of a snapshot briefly includes content from a specific source, we will prominently highlight that source in the snapshot,” a Google spokesperson told me when I asked about the copying a few weeks ago.
Having Google say that the sources it copies from are “corroborating” is as ridiculous as if Weird Al said that Michael Jackson was actually writing parodies of his songs. But in maintaining the illusion of its bots’ omnipotence, Google has also pinned itself with responsibility for what the bot says.
The Solution: Bot Shouldn’t Have Opinions
I’m sure Google’s human employees are embarrassed by outputs like those that tout the benefits of slavery or fascism and that they will (perhaps by the time you read this) block many of the queries I used from giving answers. The company has already blocked a ton of other queries on sensitive topics.
If I ask about the Holocaust or Hitler, I get no answer in SGE. The company could also make sure it gives mainstream answers like those I saw from Bing Chat and, occasionally, from Bard.
This could quickly become a game of whack a mole, because there is a seemingly endless array of hot-button topics that Google would probably not want its bots to talk about. Though the examples above are pretty egregious and should have been anticipated, it would be difficult for the company to predict every possible controversial output.
The fundamental problem here is that AI bots shouldn’t be offering opinions or advice on any topic, whether it is as serious as genocide or as lightweight as what movies to watch. The minute a bot tells you what to buy, what to view or what to believe, it’s positioning itself as an authority.
While many people may be fooled into believing that chatbots are artificially intelligent beings, the truth is far more mundane. They’re software programs that predict, with great accuracy, what word should come next after each word in their response to your prompt. They don’t have experiences and they don’t actually “know” anything to be true.
When there’s just one right factual answer to a query, by all means, let the bot answer (with a direct citation). But when we’re deciding how to feel or what to do, LLMs should stay silent.
Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom’s Hardware as a team.