Need a decent dining spot in Ottawa? Microsoft suggested a food bank

Azure giant blames human error, not AI – up to you to swallow that

​​Microsoft took down an article from its sprawling web empire that recommended travelers visit the Ottawa Food Bank on an empty stomach as a tourist attraction in the Canadian capital.

The story, published on MSN and headlined "Headed to Ottawa? Here's what you shouldn't miss," listed 15 places to stop by. Most of the suggestions were pretty sensible, such as checking out the National Gallery of Ottawa, or the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world's largest ice skating rink stretching nearly five miles long.

One recommendation, however, was particularly half-baked. The Ottawa Food Bank. Yeah, how about going to a food bank on your vacation?

Here's how that hot location was described in the article, written under the byline "Microsoft Travel":

The organization has been collecting, purchasing, producing, and delivering food to needy people and families in the Ottawa area since 1984. We observe how hunger impacts men, women, and children on a daily basis, and how it may be a barrier to achievement. People who come to us have jobs and families to support, as well as expenses to pay. Life is already difficult enough. Consider going into it on an empty stomach.

The Windows titan later dumped the page, though you can view it here thanks to the Internet Archive's irreplaceable Wayback Machine. 

A Redmond spokesperson blamed the tasteless listicle on human error, and denied it had been cooked up by an AI model, though some level of automation was used to prepare it.

"This article has been removed and we have identified that the issue was due to human error," the spinner told us.

"The article was not published by an unsupervised AI. We combine the power of technology with the experience of content editors to surface stories. In this case, the content was generated through a combination of algorithmic techniques with human review, not a large language model or AI system. We are working to ensure this type of content isn't posted in future."

Microsoft declined to elaborate further on what type of "algorithmic techniques" it employed to produce the piece and others like it.

Unsurprisingly, folks at the Ottawa Food Bank weren't too pleased. 

"Needless to say, this is not the type of messaging or 'story' we would ever put out or wish to be included in," Samantha Koziara, communications manager at the food bBank, told The Verge.

"The 'empty stomach' line is clearly insensitive and didn't pass by a (human) editor.

"To my knowledge, we haven't seen something like this before — but as AI gets more and more popular, I don't doubt an increased number inaccurate / inappropriate references will be made in listicles such as this. This simply highlights the importance of researchers, writers, and editors… of the human variety."

Koziara is right. Publications relying on AI to generate copy have their work cut out for them. Errors can be difficult to spot since the text created usually seems plausible and convincing. CNET was criticized for publishing a machine-written article containing false financial information, while a Gizmodo bot made embarrassing mistakes in a listicle chronicling Star Wars flicks and TV shows. ®

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