Yeah, great start after sacking human hacks: Microsoft's AI-powered news portal mixes up photos of women-of-color in article about racism

Blame Reg Bot 9000 for any blunders in this story, by the way


Microsoft's online news service mixed up a singer from the British girl group Little Mix for another mixed-race member of the pop band in an article about racism – after the Windows giant dumped dozens of human editors for AI software.

Jade Thirlwall discussed the difficulties of growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in South Shields, northeast England, as a woman of color on the BBC podcast No Country for Young Women. Her maternal grandparents were from Egypt and Yemen, and she was bullied for her Arabic heritage.

Her interview was covered by The Independent, and syndicated on Microsoft-owned MSN.com, which aggregates content from various publications into one portal.

Here’s where the AI part comes in: MSN.com used to be curated by dozens of human editors, who selected stories, headlines, and pictures to run on the homepage – until they were axed last month and replaced with machine-learning-powered publishing software that was expected to automate the task.

Hot on the heels of that change, the portal last week illustrated the syndicated Independent article with the wrong image: the software picked fellow Little Mix bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock, who is of Barbadian and Jamaican descent, rather than Thirlwall for the piece.

The error was blamed on the dotcom's dodgy machine-learning-based editing tools. Interestingly enough, it's claimed by the Guardian's media editor Jim Waterson that MSN bosses were poised to stop the AI-based editors from selecting his newspaper's article about the portal's blunder:

Microsoft denied the error was down to dodgy artificial intelligence, while, in a very Redmondian way, admitting its automated publishing software screwed up. "While removing bias and improving accuracy remain an area of focus for AI research, this mistake was not a result of these issues," a spokesperson told The Register on Tuesday.

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"In testing a new feature to select an alternate image, rather than defaulting to the first photo, a different image on the page of the original article was paired with the headline of the piece. This made it erroneously appear as though the headline was a caption for the picture. As soon as we became aware of this issue, we immediately took action to resolve it, replaced the incorrect image and turned off this new feature."

The little mix-up did not go unnoticed. Thirlwall blasted MSN.com, posting on Instagram: “This shit happens to @leighannepinnock and I ALL THE TIME that it’s become a running joke. It offends me that you couldn’t differentiate the two women of colour out of four members of a group … DO BETTER!”

“@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."

The article on MSN.com has been corrected to use a snap of Thirlwall. It's not clear what type of software MSN.com uses, and what tasks have been automated away, exactly. ®


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