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1 month ago
‘We Definitely Messed Up’: Why Did Google AI Tool Make Offensive Historical Images?

Originally published in The Guardian, March 8, 2024. 

Experts say Gemini was not thoroughly tested, after image generator depicted variety of historical figures as people of color.

Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin has kept a low profile since quietly returning to work at the company. But the troubled launch of Google’s artificial intelligence model Gemini resulted in a rare public utterance recently: “We definitely messed up.”

Brin’s comments, at an AI “hackathon” event on 2 March, follow a slew of social media posts showing Gemini’s image generation tool depicting a variety of historical figures – including popes, founding fathers of the US and, most excruciatingly, German second world war soldiers – as people of color.

The pictures, as well as Gemini chatbot responses that vacillated over whether libertarians or Stalin had caused the greater harm, led to an explosion of negative commentary from figures such as Elon Musk who saw it as another front in the culture wars. But criticism has also come from other sources including Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, who described some of the responses produced by Gemini as “completely unacceptable”.

So what happened? Clearly, Google wanted to produce a model whose outputs avoided some of the bias seen elsewhere in AI. For example, the Stable Diffusion image generator – a tool from the UK-based Stability AI – overwhelmingly produced images of people of color or who were darker-skinned when asked to show a “person at social services”, according to a Washington Post investigation last year, despite 63% of the recipients of food stamps in the US being white.

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