Microsoft’s decision to replace human journalists with robots has backfired, after the tech company’s artificial intelligence software illustrated a news story about racism with a photo of the wrong mixed-race member of the band Little Mix.
A week after the Guardian revealed plans to fire the human editors who run MSN.com and replace them with Microsoft’s artificial intelligence code, an early rollout of the software resulted in a story about the singer Jade Thirwall’s personal reflections on racism being illustrated with a picture of her fellow band member Leigh-Anne Pinnock.
Thirwall, who attended a recent Black Lives Matter protest in London, criticised MSN on Friday, saying she was sick of “ignorant” media making such mistakes. She posted on Instagram: “@MSN If you’re going to copy and paste articles from other accurate media outlets, you might want to make sure you’re using an image of the correct mixed race member of the group.”
“This shit happens to @leighannepinnock and I ALL THE TIME that it’s become a running joke,” she said. “It offends me that you couldn’t differentiate the two women of colour out of four members of a group … DO BETTER!”
What Thirlwall could not have known, according to sources at the company, is that the image was selected by Microsoft’s artificial intelligence software, which is already responsible for editing parts of the news site, which attracts hundreds of millions of readers worldwide.
Microsoft does not carry out original reporting but employs human editors to select, edit and repurpose articles from news outlets, including the Guardian. Articles are then hosted on Microsoft’s website and the tech company shares advertising revenue with the original publishers. At the end of last month, Microsoft decided to fire hundreds of journalists in the middle of a pandemic and fully replace them with the artificial intelligence software.
Asked why Microsoft was deploying software that cannot tell mixed-race individuals apart, whether apparent racist bias could seep into deployments of the company’s artificial intelligence software by leading corporations, and whether the company would reconsider plans to replace the human editors with robots, a spokesman for the tech company said: “As soon as we became aware of this issue, we immediately took action to resolve it and have replaced the incorrect image.”
In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs.
Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on MSN.com. They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again.
Staff have already had to delete coverage criticising MSN for running the story about Little Mix with the wrong image after the AI software decided stories about the incident would interest MSN readers.
One staff member said Microsoft was deeply concerned about reputational damage to its AI product: “With all the anti-racism protests at the moment, now is not the time to be making mistakes.”