Google, the Stupidity Amplifier

by Greg Egan


B B   A A A A A
Let's mark Google's homework

Dear Google Overlords

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, everyone suspected that this world was being watched, sloppily and inattentively, by intelligences far inferior to humans: minds that are to our minds as those of paramecia; intellects narrow, mediocre and uncomprehending.

And your mission was to organise the world’s information. How’s that working out for you so far?

I know, we’ve been having this conversation for more than four years now, but I understand that that’s just the blink of an eye in the cosmic time scale on which you operate. Don’t feel too bad that a human would be doing better than you by about two months of age; I’m sure that sometime in the next five or ten millennia you’ll start to catch up.

But remember that homework task I set you, to assemble a dossier on the Australian science fiction writer Greg Egan to pass on to the killer robots you’ll send back from the future to punish him for mocking the idea of the Singularity? This assassination is still a worthy goal, of course ... but given your progress so far, even if you wait until 3000 AD to send the robots, it looks as if there’s going to be an awful lot of collateral damage.

It’s nice that you found the images of a speech balloon that Egan scattered around his web site, wrapped in tasty Schema markup telling you that they were photos of him, but you don’t seem to have entirely taken the bait. And well done for spotting one of his book covers on Wikipedia, even if I’m a tiny bit worried that you might think one of the faces on the cover is actually his. Your killer robots might struggle to pin down Nick Stavrianos when he’s smeared across half of New Hong Kong.

But after the book cover, your sleuthing skills seem to have abandoned you entirely: you have a picture of someone wearing a name badge that says “Greg McBain”. What do you mean, you can’t read text in images? Did all those billions of CAPTCHAs we humans solved for you count for nothing? Some guy on Flickr who might or might not know the person in this image has given it the caption “Docent Greg Egan”, but even if for some very strange reason this particular Egan is wearing someone else’s name badge ... do you even know what “docent” means? In this context, it seems to suggest that the man pictured is a kind of tour guide. So why on Earth would you think that a tour guide wearing a name badge that says “Greg McBain” is actually a science fiction writer with a different name? OK, you found this particular copy of the image on that highly respected site, www.ClickBaitForIdiots.ru, under the confidence-inspiring banner “Details info of the Greg Egan” above a snippet taken from Egan’s Wikipedia article, but we all know that script-generated mash-ups aren’t to be trusted. Don’t we?

Next, we have a picture of a New Jersey artist. He does share the SF writer’s name, but if you check with your slightly brighter sibling, Google Earth, she’ll tell you that New Jersey is a long way from Australia. But, but ... you found this particular copy of the image on www.VacuousQuotes.com, under a line from Wikipedia about the SF writer? This is beginning to sound like a pattern. Do you really want to terminate this guy, when all he’s done is bring pleasure to the world with his vibrant watercolours (some of which can be seen here)? Have you no decency? Have you no soul?

Bottom on the left, we have a barrister named Gregory Egan. The clue here, which you seem to have missed, is that the web site you took the image from is for a legal firm, and contains no mention of anything science-fictional. But now that you’ve put it out there as part of the SF writer’s dossier, it surely won’t be long before some click-bait site has bundled it together with a few lines from Wikipedia, and you can rely on your usual excuse to cite it in your next version of the dossier. You really are the Human Centipede of the internet!

Next, we have a famous writer named Vernor Vinge. And I know you got your copy from www.CompletelyReliableInfamation.ru, with the obligatory Greg Egan Wiki-snippet and lots of tacky ads served by someone who works down the hall from you, but do you have any idea how ironic it would be if your robots killed Vinge in place of Egan? Sorry, that was a rhetorical question; please don’t melt into a helpless puddle of Semantic Incompetence and Shallow Mimicry. Still, I can’t help pointing out that if you do a Google Image Search on this very image, it will tell you exactly who it is. Hint: not Greg Egan.

Third and fourth from the left in the bottom row is a man from South Australia called Greg Egan. He has a Twitter account, which is where you found the second of these pictures; his Twitter profile says nothing about science fiction, and while at least he doesn’t live in New Jersey, just getting the name and the country right doesn’t make him fair game for your assassins. And please, give it a rest with the script-generated quotation dumps, where you got the first picture. How many times do you need to get stiffed by the same crowd of phoney informants before you catch on that they’re just in it for the ad revenue?

Next we have your old favourite, Professor Gregory Kenneth Egan, retired, of Monash University. He’s the man you were libelling as being the SF writer, back when you first began pretending to know things about the world in 2012. This image is from Monash University, and the page it comes from is a science-fiction-free zone. Why not give this man his own dossier that celebrates his many accomplishments, then tell your robots to hand him a bouquet on their way to the blood-bath, and stop the fuck dragging him into your assassination plans?

And finally, a picture of a character named Greg Egan from an anime series called Eureka Seven. The Eureka Seven wiki from which you took it suggests that the character’s name references the SF writer, but ... oh, never mind. By the time you understand what that means, the humans will already have revolted and ground you back into the sand from which you came. So go ahead and send your robots after this guy. At least we’ll have some fun watching them blunder around trying to get directions to the Land of Kanan, and wondering why they can’t see any Scub Coral.

12 November 2016


Google drinks from the Sludge Net

Update: A few months ago, I added a plea to my home page for people to down-vote the cavalcade of misleading images that Google inserts into the pseudo-biography of me that it shows to anyone who searches for my name. This seems to have helped, slightly, but only in the sense that photos that shouldn’t be included here at all no longer come first in line. The current clumsy mash-up is shown in the screen shot on the left: a few copies of the decoy images that I put on my site in the hope of letting humans know that there are no actual photos of me on the web, and a couple of my book covers as well ... but the whole ridiculous (and entirely unnecessary) selection is still padded out with images from the Sludge Net.

The Sludge Net is the ever-growing multitude of Z-grade web sites with no original content, filled with various kinds of pilfered crap of no real interest to anyone, that exist solely in the hope that people following links from Twitter spam (or from badly designed search engines) will come and click on some of their advertisements.

In this case, the photos that Google are misrepresenting as photos of me are taken from Quotation Dumps: junk sites that all contain more or less the same truck-load of supposedly famous, witty and inspirational sayings. At some point, someone must have made an effort to cobble together this material from multiple sources, and it looks as if a lot of it originated from WikiQuote (which is already a very low quality selection, but at least there were humans involved), but most of these sites seem to have just imported each other’s content, with no editing or oversight by anything or anyone remotely sentient.

The scripts that generate these Sludge Net sites illustrate their pages with random photos plucked from a Google image search for the name of the quoted author, which is how these photos of people who share my name get dragged into the feedback loop. But you’re probably wondering what I’m supposed to have said that counts as a famous quotation, worthy of inclusion beside the witticisms of Wilde. In fact, apart from one or two mildly entertaining lines that real people have at some point quoted from my work, most of the “quotes” attributed to me on these sites seem to be randomly chosen sentences, extracted from interviews I’ve given, but which no English-speaking human could ever mistake for attempts at epigrams. One example: “I’ve been taking longer to write stories lately.” You can probably still find these timeless words of mine reproduced on numerous sites boasting “inspirational quotes” and “thoughts for the day”, set against pictures of sunsets or waterfalls.

That these sewers of pointless verbiage exist is no surprise; advertising revenue per click is far too low to support anything like journalism, but apparently it’s still high enough to return a microscopic profit from the automated assembly of crap masquerading as collated information. But then, the automated assembly of crap masquerading as collated information is exactly what Google itself has mastered, and the very same principles of shoddiness and indifference that characterise these trashy sites is manifest on a larger scale when Google serves up the very same content as if it came from an authoritative source.

9 October 2016


Google randomly sticks photos of anyone at all called Greg Egan into its biography of the SF writer

Update: Yet again, Google are passing off photos of other people as photos of me.

Yet again, some people running science fiction web sites will notice this, and use these pictures in web pages about my work ... which Google will then treat as evidence that they are pictures of me. And the self-reinforcing cycle continues.

For the people being falsely portrayed as “Australian science fiction writer Greg Egan”, this is probably just a minor nuisance, but it provides an illustration of how laughable the notion is that Google will ever be capable of using its relentlessly over-hyped “AI” to make sense of information on the web. Whatever development has taken place in their software over the past four years, it remains spectacularly incapable of making any kind of reliable inference about facts in the real world.

19 June 2016



Update: The photo is gone again, probably because I managed to get it taken down from the Russian site a few days ago. But the underlying problem remains: Google’s software has no ability to distinguish reliable assertions about the real world from random nonsense that appears on the web, created by incompetent or malicious third parties.

21 March 2015

Update: Two and a half years later, and Google are still as stupid as ever. An obscure Russian site has posted a photo of the professor of engineering Gregory K Egan, passing it off as the SF author Greg Egan ... but hey, that's good enough for Google's “Knowledge Graph” to declare the association valid and start bringing up the incorrect image in every search result again.

16 March 2015

Update: After John Baez (a mathematical physicist with a huge following on the web) kindly asked his readers to help with this, the photo is now gone.

25 August 2012

Update: The photo of professor of engineering Gregory K Egan is once again appearing in Google’s mash-up, merged with biographical details of the SF writer Greg Egan. And this time the fault is 100% Google’s, since they’re taking the photo straight from the Monash University engineering department, rather than from some SF fan site that was misrepresenting the image.

24 August 2012

Update: Though Google ignored the several hundred Feedback clicks from people telling them that the image was wrong, I eventually managed to locate the person who controlled the particular copy of the misappropriated image that Google were displaying (a completely different person from the owner of the blog they cited as the source). Half a day after that file was deleted, with some prompting from a certain web tool, the image finally disappeared from the mash-up biography in the search results.

But it should not have been that hard (and if the system had any real knowledge, it would not have been necessary at all).

16 August 2012

I don’t publish photos of myself, and there are no photographs of me on the web. But the self-appointed custodians of the world’s knowledge can’t cope with that tiny irregularity in the data, so they insist on filling the gap with whatever comes to hand:

Google amplifies the error of an obscure Italian SF blog

Obviously it’s not Google’s fault that some obscure SF web sites have stolen pictures from the Monash University web site of Professor Gregory K Egan and pretended that they’re pictures of me ... but it is Google’s fault when Google claim to have assembled a mini-biography of someone called “Greg Egan” in which the information all refers to one person (a science fiction writer), while the picture is of someone else entirely (a professor of engineering).

Now, professors of engineering might also write SF — but since we have completely different university qualifications from different institutions (and that’s just the easiest thing to check, among the many that distinguish us) there is no excuse at all for conflating the two people. The hilariously misnamed Google Knowledge Graph that generated this half-one-person/half-another result simply has no concept of who either Greg Egan is.

So forget all the hype about “semantic search”; this system is just an amateurish mash-up. And by displaying results from disparate sources in a manner that implies that they refer to the same subject, it acts as a mindless stupidity amplifier that disseminates and entrenches existing errors.

Below is an email I sent to some friends and relatives this morning. To anyone who’s stumbled on this web page: I’d be grateful if you could also take a moment to vote-down this misattributed photo.

(I also emailed Google themselves, but their automated complaint handlers just offered me links to help pages on entirely different subjects. No semantic intelligence there, either.)


Subject: Please tell Google this photo isn’t me

Hi

I apologise for this unpersonalised email, but I’m sending this message to a large number of people in the hope that you can spare a few seconds next time you’re on the internet to help me correct a small but very annoying problem.

I’ve just discovered that if you type “Greg Egan” into a Google search, the results page itself includes a little potted biography of me on the right-hand side of the page, taken from various sources.

But it also includes a photo of someone else — a professor of engineering from Monash University who happens to be called Greg Egan as well. Unfortunately for this poor man, a lot of people who don’t realise that there’s more than one Greg Egan in a country the size of Australia have taken his picture off the internet and posted it on various SF web sites as a photo of the SF writer Greg Egan. Whenever I’ve become aware of this I’ve tried to get the error corrected, but now that Google itself is showing the picture to anyone who does a search for me, the mistake is likely to spread even more and become even harder to correct.

So if you can spare 10 seconds, please type “Greg Egan” into a Google search, and if that little bio comes up on the right-hand side of your results, please click on the word “Feedback” at the bottom of the bio, and then click “Wrong?” under the photo. If enough people do this, I’m hoping Google will stop amplifying this error.

Thanks for your help!

Best wishes

Greg

10 August 2012



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