Remember back in 2018, when Google removed "don't be evil" from its code of conduct?
It's been living up to that removal lately. At its annual I/O in San Francisco this week, the search giant finally lifted the lid on its vision for AI-integrated search — and that vision, apparently, involves cutting digital publishers off at the knees.
Google's new AI-powered search interface, dubbed "Search Generative Experience," or SGE for short, involves a feature called "AI Snapshot." Basically, it's an enormous top-of-the-page summarization feature. Ask, for example, "why is sourdough bread still so popular?" — one of the examples that Google used in their presentation — and, before you get to the blue links that we're all familiar with, Google will provide you with a large language model (LLM) -generated summary. Or, we guess, snapshot.
"Google's normal search results load almost immediately," The Verge's David Pierce explains. "Above them, a rectangular orange section pulses and glows and shows the phrase 'Generative AI is experimental.' A few seconds later, the glowing is replaced by an AI-generated summary: a few paragraphs detailing how good sourdough tastes, the upsides of its prebiotic abilities, and more."
"To the right," he adds, "there are three links to sites with information that Reid says 'corroborates' what's in the summary."
As it goes without saying, this format of search, where Google uses AI tech to regurgitate the internet back to users, is wildly different from how the search-facilitated internet works today. Right now, if you Google that same query — "why is sourdough bread still so popular?" — you'd be met with a more familiar scene: a featured excerpt from whichever website won the SEO race (in this case, that website was British Baker), followed by that series of blue links.
At first glance, the change might seem relatively benign. Often, all folks surfing the web want is a quick-hit summary or snippet of something anyway.
But it's not unfair to say that Google, which in April, according to data from SimilarWeb, hosted roughly 91 percent of all search traffic, is somewhat synonymous with, well, the internet. And the internet isn't just some ethereal, predetermined thing, as natural water or air. The internet is a marketplace, and Google is its kingmaker.
As such, the demo raises an extremely important question for the future of the already-ravaged journalism industry: if Google's AI is going to mulch up original work and provide a distilled version of it to users at scale, without ever connecting them to the original work, how will publishers continue to monetize their work?
"Google has unveiled its vision for how it will incorporate AI into search," tweeted The Verge's James Vincent. "The quick answer: it's going to gobble up the open web and then summarize/rewrite/regurgitate it (pick the adjective that reflects your level of disquiet) in a shiny Google UI."
Research has shown that information consumers hardly ever make it to even the second page of search results, let alone even the bottom of the page. And worse, it's not like Google's taking clicks away from its longtime information merchants by hiring an army of human content writers to churn out summarization. Google's new search interface, which is built on a model that's already been trained by way of boatloads upon boatloads of unpaid-for human output, will seemingly be swallowing even more human-made content and spitting it back out to information-seekers, all the while taking valuable clicks away from the publishers that are actually doing the work of reporting, curating, and holding powerful interests like Google to account.
As of now, it's unclear whether or how Google plans to compensate those publishers.
In an emailed statement to Futurism, a Google spokesperson said that "we’re introducing this new generative AI experience as an experiment in Search Labs to help us iterate and improve, while incorporating feedback from users and other stakeholders."
"As we experiment with new LLM-powered capabilities in Search, we’ll continue to prioritize approaches that will allow us to send valuable traffic to a wide range of creators and support a healthy, open web," the spokesperson added.
Asked specifically whether the company has plans to compensate publishers for any AI-regurgitated content, Google had little in response.
"We don’t have plans to share on this, but we’ll continue to work with the broader ecosystem," the spokesperson told Futurism.
Publishers, however, are extremely wary of these changes.
"If this actually works and is implemented in a firm way," wrote RPG Site owner Alex Donaldson, "this is literally the end of the business model for vast swathes of digital media lol."
At the end of the day, there are a lot of questions that Google needs to answer here, not the least being that AI systems, Google's included, spew fabrications all the time.
The Silicon Valley giant has long claimed that its goal is to maximize access to information. SGE, though, seemingly seeks to do something quite different — and if the company doesn't figure out a way to compensate publishers for the labor it'll be gleaning from the journalists, the effects on the public's actual access to information could be catastrophic.
Updated with comment from Google.
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