Google has a new ad for its latest smartphone, the Pixel 2, and it’s all over TV. “When you change a period to a question mark,” says text on a screen, “It changes everything.” Then, the period becomes a question mark: “It changes everything?”
The implication is that Google, “a company built on questions,” is questioning conventional wisdom about the limitations of smartphones, and the result is the fabulous Pixel 2. OK, makes sense. But the first statement-turned-question the commercial uses as an example is an odd one. “The Earth is flat,” the ad says. Then, “The Earth is flat?”
This might seem like a benign question if Google itself wasn’t completely terrible at accurately answering such queries.
Not too long ago, Google unwittingly proclaimed the Earth was flat. As recently as March, when you Googled “Is Earth flat?” the search engine surfaced a featured answer that seemed to say yes.
"Here are 10 'proofs' that the Earth is actually flat, not round,” read the answer highlighted at the top of Google’s search results, attributed to Metro News. “A lot of people thought the fact that we all fly around in aeroplanes would put paid to Flat Earth theory — the idea that our planet isn't a sphere, but instead a sort of pancake thing."
If you asked the same question of Google using its voice assistant, the answer was shortened to, “According to Metro, our planet isn’t a sphere, but instead a sort of pancake thing.”
After The Outline published a story pointing this out, Google nixed the featured answer (it is unclear if this happened organically, as Google is constantly automatically refining its results, or if it was done by human intervention). As of this writing, the query “Is Earth flat?” did not result in a direct answer; instead, Google surfaced some “Top Stories” about the conspiracy theory and a list of links. The Metro News link is the last one on the first page of search results.
Was the inclusion of this question in the ad a wink at flat-earth conspiracy theorists, who believe that they are the ones challenging conventional thinking? Google did not respond to a request for comment, but my guess is that it’s more likely that the marketing department picked the cliche question without realizing its tinfoil-hat connotation (or that it once entrapped Google). Given the number of public relations incidents Google’s wrong answers have inspired, perhaps it should have done more research.
Over the past year, Google has moved further and further away from being a reference tool to being an oracle. When asked a question, the search engine continues to surface a list of links pointing to information related to the query, but it is also increasingly trying to answer questions outright. This is partly because users on mobile devices don’t want to dive into links, and also because voice-activated devices work much better when they can answer a query with a straightforward sentence.
Unfortunately, Google is using a bunch of machine learning algorithms to determine its answers, and those answers are frequently wrong. We’ve written about the scores of major mistakes Google has made in trying to answer search queries outright. Google has told people that MSG causes brain damage, that women are evil, and that dinosaurs are used to “indoctrinate children and adults.” As recently as Saturday, Google responded to “How old is the president?” with a picture of Barack Obama and his age, 56. As of this writing, a search for “Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?” pulls up a photo of Craig Wright, whose identity as the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin is still disputed. Also as of this writing, Google erroneously says Heather Daltrey is married to John Entwistle, bassist for The Who; she is actually married to Roger Daltrey, the band’s lead singer. This error has been live for four days.
Google pulls these direct answers from its curated Knowledge Graph database as well as from the open web, the latter of which produces a boxed answer called a Featured Snippet. These erroneous answers are not Google’s only contribution to #fakenews. The search engine also highlights information in other ways, including its Top Stories module, which misidentified the suspect in the Las Vegas mass shooting earlier this month by highlighting a thread from 4chan.
Google says it automatically catches these wrong answers and fixes them over time, and that does appear to be true. However, new wrong answers crop up constantly and may remain live for significant periods. Google’s erroneous answer to the question “Who invented email?” has been live for over a year.
“Ask more of your phone,” says the Pixel 2 ad. Just don’t ask it any hard questions, like, say, how many children Batman has. As of this writing, Google claims the answer is two: Damien and Terrence. Unfortunately, the correct answer is at least five.