Google, the Stupidity Amplifier

by Greg Egan

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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


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


10 August 2012

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Essays / Google, the Stupidity Amplifier / created Friday, 10 August 2012 / revised Sunday, 9 October 2016
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