Microsoft recently came under fire for an AI-curated article that inappropriately suggested tourists in Ottawa visit a local food bank as part of their itinerary. The article titled, “Headed to Ottawa? Here’s what you shouldn’t miss!” provided seemingly innocuous suggestions such as attending a baseball game and paying respects at a war museum. However, it went awry by adding the Ottawa Food Bank to the list of attractions.
The article was flagged by Paris Marx on X (previously known as Twitter). In the controversial section, the AI mentioned, “People who come to us have jobs and families to support, as well as expenses to pay,” further adding, “Life is already difficult enough. Consider going into it on an empty stomach.”
This piece was featured on Microsoft Start, an AI-driven news service that took over from Microsoft News in 2021. Following its exposure by The Verge, which highlighted the problematic suggestion to approach the food bank “on an empty stomach”, Jeff Jones, Microsoft’s senior director, responded by stating, “This article has been removed and we are investigating how it made it through our review process.”
Microsoft is really hitting it out of the park with its AI-generated travel stories! If you visit Ottawa, it highly recommends the Ottawa Food Bank and provides a great tip for tourists: “Consider going into it on an empty stomach.” https://t.co/7bvGemDad2
— Paris Marx (@parismarx) August 17, 2023
Microsoft’s recent debacle, where an AI-curated article inappropriately suggested tourists visit a local Ottawa food bank, has once again brought the challenges of automated journalism to the forefront. After the article’s removal, those attempting to access its original URL are greeted with a message indicating the page’s nonexistence, while screenshots of the controversial article can be found on Imgur, courtesy of The Verge.
Interestingly, the byline for the contentious article read “Microsoft Travel”, hinting that the piece might have been generated without human intervention. However, the “About Us” section on Microsoft Start claims the use of “human oversight” to manage the algorithms that sift through vast quantities of content from their partners. This discrepancy raises questions, especially considering Microsoft’s decision to lay off about 50 journalists in 2020 and shift towards AI-driven news production.
Microsoft isn’t alone in facing the challenges of AI-generated content. Earlier this year, CNET experienced its share of flak for publishing several AI-written financial explainers riddled with inaccuracies. G/O Media, Gizmodo’s parent company, also faced criticism for an error-prone AI-authored Star Wars piece, which deputy editor James Whitbrook labeled as “embarrassing, unpublishable, disrespectful.”
While the Associated Press exercises prudence in leveraging AI for news coverage, other outlets seem more willing to jump onto the AI-journalism bandwagon. They’re ready to deal with the aftermath, often in the form of retractions and apologies, emphasizing the need for more caution in the intersection of AI and journalism.