A recent Google Home blunder highlights one of the search giant’s next big challenges with its smart speaker device.
Anger broke out on social media Thursday afternoon when people started creating videos that showed that Google’s smart speaker, Home, couldn’t answer the question “Who is Jesus?” but could provide responses for Buddha, Muhammad, and Satan.
People hypothesized that it was “political correctness” or a lack of respect that kept the device from talking about Jesus or God.
Then Google issued a statement on Friday explaining the problem and barring Home from answering questions about other religious figures, too.
Home pulls some of its answers directly from the web and certain topics (like religion) “can be more vulnerable to vandalism and spam,” the company explained via tweet.
(If you ask Home who Jesus Christ or Satan is now, it will respond, “Religion can be complicated and I’m still learning.”)
What’s going on here? The problem lies with Google’s so-called “featured snippets.” Whether or not you have a smart speaker, you’ve likely seen this product in action: Ask a question and Google will often serve up a box at the top of search highlighting what its algorithms have determined to be the best answer.
This answer isn’t always right, however.
Featured snippets have turned up a host of highly publicized errorsover the years, but the problem is much more pernicious when an objectionable answer comes via voice, where it’s harder to understand the source that Google’s pulling from.
If you’re only going to get one answer, and not a list of links, that answer better be right.
Interestingly, Danny Sullivan, who first highlighted Google’s big issue with featured snippets, now works at the company to help educate people on how search works and look into issues like these.
This underscores one of Google’s big challenges moving forward: Figuring out how to mitigate bad answers.
As the company pushes Home’s AI and ability to pull from Google’s resources as one of its greatest strengths against Amazon’s competitor, Alexa, the company isn’t likely to stop Home from pulling answers from featured snippets altogether. And after all, the beauty of smart speakers is that they give you a quick reply so you don’t have to get on a phone or a computer to answer a question. Google just needs to get better at vetting its sources and continuing to stop bad actors from messing with results.
To be fair, Google answers questions fairly and correctly far, far more often than it gets things wrong. But the stakes are high, especially when children are increasingly using these devices.