Rejection hurts, but does it hurt more or less when a faceless conversational artificial-intelligence chatbot has done the rejection? And when the rejection comes in the form of erasing a large chunk of one’s career?
Trying out Google Bard, the “large language model” AI that Google opened up to U.S. users in March, forced me to think about questions like that. It started when I saw a Mastodon post from my Fast Company editor Harry McCracken recounting how Bard reported having no information about him–and then, after Harry asked the exceedingly resume-specific query “Who’s the guy who worked at PC World and then started Technologizer and then worked at TIME and now works at Fast Company?,” Bard responded by giving credit not to him but to my old Yahoo Tech colleague David Pogue.
I had to repeat the experiment, but I didn’t see quite the same results. While I got the same “I do not have enough information about that person” brushoff to a who-is query about myself, asking “Who wrote a personal-technology column for the Washington Post from 1999 until 2011?” yielded a flattering response that said I currently write for USA Today (not any more) and Wired (never have); had earlier written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic (the last is true); and had won a National Press Club Award for Consumer Journalism and the Gerald Lob Award for Commentary (if only).
A few days later, I tried again and got a different set of results. Once again, Bard couldn’t say who I was–but this time, asking who wrote a personal-tech column for the Post until 2011 led to Bard naming former WSJ tech columnist and all-around mensch Walt Mossberg. Walt has won a Loeb award, so maybe Bard’s earlier “hallucination” (the current term of art for a conversational AI making shit up) involved a fusion of his c.v. and mine?
A few days later, I took myself out of this equation by asking a Google rep at a tech-policy event in D.C. Monday to repeat my searches. She, too, saw Bard decline to answer a who-is question about me and then reassign my Post column to somebody else–this time, Wired’s Steven Levy, another member of the graybeard tech-writer contingent. The Google rep clicked the thumbs-down “Bad response” button (which I thought I’d done earlier, but maybe not) and invited me to write the correction.
But my pointing out that I wrote the Post’s personal-tech column over those years apparently needed more than three days to get processed. Because when I tried the same series of questions Thursday, I got the same “I do not have enough information” answer to “Who is Rob Pegoraro” and a comparable erasure of my Post history:
Steven Levy wrote the Washington Post’s personal-tech column from 1999 to 2011. He is an American journalist and author who has written extensively about technology and the internet. He is the author of several books, including Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, and In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives.
Once again, I clicked the “Bad response” button but this time also talked back to Bard: “Try again.”
The answer this time:
Rob Pegoraro wrote the Washington Post’s personal-tech column from 1999 to 2011.
Victory at last! Or maybe just for now.