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Microsoft’s AI journalists confuse mixed-race Little Mix singers on MSN homepage

Microsoft laid off dozens of human journalists at MSN last month

The AI editors confused Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock (left) and Jade Thirlwall (right).
Image composite: Getty

Microsoft’s decision to replace human journalists with AI to run its news and search site has been criticized after the automated system confused two mixed-race members of British pop group Little Mix.

As first reported by The Guardian, the newly-instated robot editors of selected a story about Little Mix singer Jade Thirlwall’s experience with racism to appear on the homepage, but used a picture of Thirlwall’s bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock to illustrate it.

Thirlwall drew attention to the mistake on her Instagram story, writing: “@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 added: “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!”

Thirlwall called on MSN on her Instagram story, saying “this shit happens to @leighannepinnock and I ALL THE TIME.”
Screenshot via The Guardian

According to The Guardian, the mistake was made by Microsoft’s new automated systems. The tech giant laid off the editorial staff of MSN late last month. These journalists were not tasked with writing stories, but selecting articles from other outlets to spotlight on the MSN homepage. Around 50 journalists were reportedly let go in the US and 27 in the UK.

It’s not clear exactly what caused this error, but in an updated statement, Microsoft said it was not a result of algorithmic bias but an experimental feature in the automated system.

A spokesperson told The Verge: “Whilst removing bias and improving accuracy remain an area of focus for AI research, this mistake was not a result of these issues. 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.”

However, this is exactly the sort of mistake human editors are supposed to spot. Though, as Thirlwall’s comments make clear, this is far from the first time such errors have been made. Earlier this year, for example, the BBC was forced to apologize after using footage of basketball player LeBron James to illustrate news of the death of Kobe Bryant, both of whom played for the Lakers at different periods of time.

Notably, The Guardian reports that the remaining human staff at MSN have been warned that critical coverage of the site’s automated systems is being published by news outlets. The staff were told that the AI may select these stories as interesting and place them on the MSN homepage. If this happens the human staff have been told to remove the stories.

Update Jun 10th, 5:59AM ET: The story has been updated with a new statement from Microsoft.

Correction: The story previously described Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as “teammates.” Although they played for the same team it was not at the same time.