Over the past few months, various examples of Google Home responding to inquiries with answers of questionable veracity have popped up over the internet. Here's one such example.

The problem is that Google, in order to optimize for voice-based answers, is reading off the top search result of a given query — without necessarily verifying whether that source is providing truthful answers. According to The Outline, this problem will only get worse as more people invest in voice-based AI companions that take the onus off the user for obtaining knowledge:

The number of browser-less internet-connected devices is growing fast, and already voice-activated assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home are penetrating the market. Google's traditional list of search results does not translate well to voice — imagine Google Home reading you a list of 10 websites when you just want to know how many calories are in an orange.

Google can be relatively easily gamed, and with enough manipulation a particular website can rise to the top of the search results.

The issues arise when Google balances the notion that its search engine is inherently trustworthy — a majority of people say they believe the information they find on websites shown on the first page of Google — with the machine learning algorithms that help particular pieces of information rise to the top result.

The ability to read featured snippets is also the major distinguishing characteristic between Google Home and competitors like Amazon Echo and Siri, said Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land. "Google sees that as a competitive advantage and they don't want to turn it off," he said. The problem is that even when they are wrong, the featured snippets bear Google's highest endorsement. "Where is the tipping point where you get enough of these embarrassing answers that you decide to shut it off?"

This is a very difficult problem to solve. Google is utilizing its extensive Knowledge Graph to provide what it believes to be the best answer to any question, and its biggest strength — data, and using it to provide a response to practically any inquiry — is also its biggest liability. That's because Google can be relatively easily gamed, and with enough manipulation a particular website can rise to the of the search results. Google currently doesn't differentiate between its search engine — the text- and video-based list of results millions of people use every day — and that of its Assistant, which provides the answers to Google Home. Down the road, it may be forced to curate the results of more commonly-asked questions, or risk disseminating content that it doesn't necessarily stand behind.

Of course, Google itself is not pretending to endorse any of these claims, nor is it verifying the veracity of the top results supplied to Home. It states that very clearly in every response by prefacing, "According to [source]," to every answer. But most users, for better or worse, don't differentiate Google the search provider from Google the trustworthy news source, and that will get the company into trouble as more of these controversial examples arise.

Our own Jerry Hildenbrand wrote about the issue of Google Home's publicness in an earlier column:

The proper way to address this according to Google is to report the featured snippet as inappropriate. The problem is that it's not inappropriate on a website that doesn't read it aloud. I don't think the search is made better by removing an interesting result featured at the top as long as a creepy female robotic voice isn't reading it out loud to the kids. And Google Home is designed to be out in the open in front of everyone doing its thing. It's no longer private once it comes out of the speaker.

That gets to the core of the problem: people are better able to distinguish the real from the fake when they're shown a list of alternative results. When Google offers just a single definitive result, people are more likely to treat it as truth.

In the meantime, Google Home is about to launch in the UK, and has proven to be one of Google's biggest hardware successes of the past few years.

Google Home


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