Chatbots could one day replace search engines. Here’s why that’s a terrible idea.

Bender is not against using language models for question and answer exchanges in all cases. He has a Google Assistant in his kitchen, which he uses to convert units of measurement in a recipe. “There are times when it’s very convenient to be able to use voice to access information,” he says.

But Shah and Bender also give a more worrying example that emerged last year, when Google answered the question “What is the ugliest language in India?” with the snippet “The answer is Kannada, a language spoken by around 40 million people in South India.”

no easy answers

There is a dilemma here. Direct answers can be convenient, but they are also often wrong, irrelevant, or offensive. They can hide the complexity of the real world, says Benno Stein of the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany.

In 2020, Stein and colleagues Martin Potthast at the University of Leipzig and Matthias Hagen at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany published a paper highlighting problems with direct answers. “The answer to most questions is ‘It depends,’” says Matthias. “This is difficult to communicate with someone looking for.”

Stein and his colleagues believe that search technologies have moved from organizing and filtering information, through techniques such as providing a list of documents that match a search query, to making recommendations in the form of a single answer to a question. And they think it’s a step too far.

Once again, the problem is not the limitations of existing technology. Even with perfect technology, we wouldn’t get perfect answers, Stein says: “We don’t know what a good answer is because the world is complex, but we stop thinking about that when we see these direct answers.”

Shaw agrees. Providing people with a single answer can be problematic because the sources of that information and any disagreements between them are hidden, she says: “It really depends on us trusting these systems completely.”

Shah and Bender suggest a series of solutions to the problems they anticipate. In general, search technologies need to support the many ways people use search engines today, many of which don’t have direct answers. People often use search to explore topics they don’t even have specific questions about, says Shah. In this case, it would be more useful to simply provide a list of documents.

It should be clear where the information is coming from, especially if an AI is pulling pieces from more than one source. Some voice assistants already do this, for example by prefacing a response with “This is what I found on Wikipedia”. Future search tools should also have the ability to say “That’s a dumb question,” says Shah. This would help the technology avoid repeating offensive or biased premises in a query.

Stein suggests that AI-based search engines could come up with reasons for their answers, giving pros and cons from different points of view.

However, many of these suggestions simply highlight the dilemma that Stein and his colleagues identified. Anything that reduces convenience will be less attractive to most users. “If you don’t click on the second page of Google results, you don’t want to read different arguments,” says Stein.

Google says it is aware of many of the issues raised by these researchers and is working hard to develop technology that people find useful. But Google is the developer of a multi-billion dollar service. Ultimately, you will create the tools that attract the most people.

Stein hopes that not everything depends on convenience. “Search is very important to us, to society,” she says.

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