- Microsoft took down a string of embarrassing and offensive travel articles last week.
- The company said the articles were not published by “unsupervised AI” and blamed “human error.”
- But the scope of the errors should concern anyone worried about AI’s impact on the news.
Last week, Microsoft took down a string of articles published by “Microsoft Travel” that included a bizarre recommendation for visitors to Ottawa to visit the Ottawa Food Bank and to “consider going into it on an empty stomach.”
The now-deleted article that included that recommendation — “Headed to Ottawa? Here’s what you shouldn’t miss!” — went viral after writer Paris Marx shared it as an example of an AI flop. The online chatter about the article, and the clearly offensive nature of the food bank recommendation, prompted Microsoft to issue a statement. The statement blamed a human.
“This article has been removed and we have identified that the issue was due to human error,” a Microsoft spokesperson said. “The article was not published by an unsupervised AI. We combine the power of technology with the experience of content editors to surface stories. In this case, the content was generated through a combination of algorithmic techniques with human review, not a large language model or AI system. We are working to ensure this type of content isn’t posted in future.”
It wasn’t the AI that was the problem, it was the human. There was a “content editor” and they made a mistake. We all make mistakes, right?
I might be more persuaded by that stance if that article, however egregious it was, were the only one. In fact, it was not. There were at least a handful of articles that made equally absurd if less offensive travel recommendations.
There was the article, “Try these mouth-watering dishes on your trip to Montreal,” which suggested a “hamburger” with the Wikipedia-like entry noting that while the term “burger” can be applied to any type of meat patty, a “hamburger” in particular refers to a “sandwich comprised of a ground beef patty, a sliced bun of some kind, and toppings such as lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc.” It listed McDonald’s Canada as a popular place to try out. That article has since been removed.
Then there was, “Headed to Anchorage? Tempt your palate with these 6 local delicacies,” which included “seafood” and pointed out that it is “basically any form of sea life regarded as food by humans, prominently including fish and shellfish.” It continued on to say that “seafood is a versatile ingredient, so it makes sense that we eat it worldwide.” That article has likewise been removed.
Another, “16 Most photo-worthy spots in Tokyo!,” seemed to be doing okay running down prominent sites until it inexplicably dropped in a slide titled, “Eat Wagyu Beef.” Perhaps it was supposed to be in one of the articles on food? That article has also been removed.
Those were just a few examples that I grabbed before the articles were apparently taken down. I reached out to Microsoft to understand what was going on. If, as the company said, these were not being published by “unsupervised AI,” how could this happen?
Microsoft is no stranger to the news business. It has run a news aggregator (now Microsoft Start, formerly Microsoft News and MSN News) since 1995 that licenses stories from publications including Insider. But in 2020, my colleague Lucia Moses broke the news that it was cutting dozens of contractors and moving away from human curation and toward an AI-driven system.
Clearly, Microsoft has bet that AI is the future of news aggregation. Now, it seems, Microsoft has become perhaps a bit too confident that AI can do the work of writing the content. Based on the examples I found, whatever human controls Microsoft had in place were so minimal as to be functionally useless.
This all makes me uneasy for a few reasons. First, it suggests that despite a long relationship with the news business, Microsoft thinks humans can be pretty easily brushed aside in the process, to the point where it took public backlash to cause the company to look more closely at it. Second, Microsoft isn’t commenting on most of the articles.
When I reached out, the Microsoft spokesperson said the company would only comment on the Ottawa Food Bank article, and not on the other ones that had been removed or what the review process was for them that broke down.
As my colleague Kai Xiang Teo wrote when first covering the Ottawa Food Bank article, Microsoft’s misstep fits into a pattern of companies from CNET to Gizmodo publishing AI-assisted articles with glaring errors. But what about the articles that don’t contain actual “errors,” per se? What about the hamburger one, or the seafood one? Will they continue publishing those types of stories when the heat dies down?
I hope this was just a boneheaded mistake. I hope Microsoft — and the other tech giants for that matter — don’t think the work of those of us in the news business can be replaced by remixed Wikipedia-style articles stitched together in a barely coherent whole. I really do.