Monthly Archives: November 2019

Google Search: What are you trying to autocomplete?

Wired magazine had a good article on offensive Google autocomplete answers to questions like “Are Jews…” or “Blacks/Feminists are….”

There have been lots of good articles on built-in bias in different algorithms such as evaluations of credit worthiness which perpetuate unconscious bad assumptions already built in to traditional financial evaluations.

But…what is the question?

In this case though, I wonder if the customer isn’t partly to blame. To me the very question “Are XXX…” to me sounds like a non-XXX person trying to check on an aspect of XXX culture. A benign scenario could be to clarify a stereotype or just to learn more about the XXX culture. I can even see people in the community want to search answers about questions they may have.

But there are plenty of negative reasons people are looking up information about “those” XXX people out there. The fact that Google is prone to bring up offensive stereotypes in the answers suggest a lot of negative searching is happening under the umbrella “Are XXX …” Even today, I asked the question “Are XXX…” for various groups and got some odd answers like “Are Pennsylvanians rude?” (or they just weird?)

Google search for Are Pennsylvians with autocomplete answers rude/weird

Can you ask this instead?

I do use Google to look up cultural information about all sorts of XXX cultures, but I confess I haven’t run into this problem. For one thing, I rarely use words like “are/is” in my search terms. Instead I use nouns and adjectives which are what I’m really interested. It’s up to you if you want to enter in something neutral or more loaded.

In terms of searching I had thought of “to be” as a semantically empty (although grammatically important) verbs that wouldn’t affect my search results one way or another. Apparently that verb is more powerful than I thought.