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Google News' chief robot speaks out

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Is Google News' chief scientist, Krishna Bharat, actually a robot? From an interview in the current issue of Wired magazine, it's increasingly difficult to conclude that Bharat could convincingly pass the Turing Test. Every time Google News is criticized for bias, Bharat is wheeled to field out an identical reply. He claims that humans can't be held responsible for what appears on his website - because machines are in charge.

"The truth is, Google News doesn't have a point of view," he tells the magazine. "It's a computer, and computers do not understand these topics the way humans do and can't be systematically biased in any direction."

Surely even a simple Eliza script could produce a more convincing reply, or at least have been tweaked moderate it subtly on each occasion. This leaves us skeptical: the Bharatbot is long overdue a maintenance upgrade.

Now even hive-minded Google fans who are predisposed to viewing the internet as a "natural democracy" (in Google's own words) are beginning to smell something fishy in the Chief Bot's refusal to take responsibility. Google News alone consistently ranks as the fifth most popular site in the United States - so its reach and influence are matters of public concern. Amongst the groups getting a chance-in-a-lifetime publicity boost from the website are the fascist British National Party, we discovered.

The controversy began eighteen months ago when Google News began to include corporate and lobbyists' press releases in its aggregator. After our stories, Google began to tag identify stories as press releases. One Friday evening back in April 2003, the company even promised to publish a public, written policy for inclusion the following Monday. (You can read what happened here). To this day, Google hasn't published a criteria for what goes in to the news aggregator, and has used the same reasoning to counter privacy concerns about its Gmail service.

It's a PR disaster almost entirely of Google's own making. Google's refusal to take responsibility for its actions isn't exactly original: at one point in an Antitrust deposition Bill Gates claimed that "the computer wrote" one particular incriminating email. It's the "cat ate my homework" excuse of the 21st Century. But Google insults the intelligence of its users, who are well aware that Google's computers process whatever its human operators tell them to process.

So human or algorithm? We're leaning towards the latter. What the Bharatbot doesn't seem to have been programmed with is the experience of ever having being someone who reads the news himself: and experience is often the vital difference between bot and machine. ®

Related link

Bharat: human or robot? You decide [Wired]

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