Microsoft’s AI editor shows racial bias on debut

Bobby Hellard

9 Jun, 2020

Microsoft’s decision to replace journalist with AI on the MSN home page appears to have backfired within just a week. 

As reported by The Guardian, the AI software the company is using to curate stories illustrated an article about racism with an image of the wrong band member of Little Mix.

A story about Jade Thirlwall’s personal reflections on racism was illustrated with a picture of her fellow band member, Leigh-Anne Pinnock. What’s more, despite its human editors correcting the image, the software is also said to be surfacing reports of the mistake on the home page. 

The error, which was first spotted on Friday, couldn’t have come at a worse time as people across the UK and US are taking to the streets to protest racial injustice. It also follows Microsoft’s work to restructure its AI policies, aimed at preventing mishaps of this kind. 

Thirlwall, who has been attending recent Black Lives Matter protests in London, criticised MSN for the post, calling it ignorant, unaware that the error was made by artificial intelligence.  

“@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,” she said. 

At the start of June, contracted journalists were told they would no longer be employed by Microsoft to curate news on the MSN home page. Microsoft doesn’t carry out any original reporting or content creation, but it employs human editors to select, edit and repurpose articles from certain publications which it shares advertising revenue with.

With the coronavirus pandemic hitting media jobs hard, the company began terminating the contracts for dozens of its temporary journalists, according to The Guardian, with the aim of replacing them with AI. A number of those whose contracts were terminated suggested the tech giant had already begun using software to curate stories on the website. 

The human editors are thought to be unable to prevent the robot editor from selecting stories from other sites, according to The Guardian, as such editors have been told to stay alert and delete any version of the Little Mix article that software selects.

IT Pro has approached Microsoft for comment, but a staff member told The Guardian that the company 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,” they said.