AI search answers are the fast food of your information diet – convenient and tasty, but not a substitute for good nutrition

This feature is yet another addition to the increasing number of add-ons and tools being integrated into search engines like Google. Some notable examples include knowledge graph-driven knowledge panels, which are used to populate relevant factual information in an infobox next to search results, and featured snippets, which are short summaries extracted from a search result and placed before the link to that page displayed.

But what’s different about AI overviews is that they are not simply pulled from relevant sources, but are generated behind the scenes by Google’s generative AI technology. The company’s goal is to give you a personalized on-demand response rather than a standard set of documents or even an answer box that fits your question.

This seems almost magical and potentially useful in many situations. After all, people mainly use search engines to find answers and not lists of documents. But there is more to the image.

My colleague Emily Bender and I have written about what search engine users need, want, and want. We have shown that they not only want information, but also the ability to discover, learn and question what they find. In other words, users have a wide range of situations and goals, and compressing them into a series of links or, worse, a single answer is problematic.

Bad advice

These AI features suck in information from the internet and other available sources and spit out an answer based on how they have been trained to associate words. A core argument against these is that they largely disregard the user’s judgment, freedom of choice, and ability to learn.

This can be fine for many searches. Would you like a description of how inflation has affected food prices over the past five years, or a summary of what the European Union’s AI Act entails? AI summaries can be a good way to go through a lot of documents and pull out those specific answers.

But people’s search needs don’t end with factual information. They look for ideas, opinions and advice. Looking for tips to prevent the cheese from sliding off your pizza? Google will tell you to add some glue to the sauce. Or are you wondering if running with scissors has any health benefits? Sure, Google will say, “It can also improve your pores and give you strength.”

While a reasonable user can understand that such outrageous answers are probably wrong, it is difficult to detect that with factual questions.

For example, while researching the faith of American presidents, Google’s AI Overviews gave the incorrect answer that Barack Obama is a Muslim. This misinformation was widely spread and debunked years ago, but Google has regurgitated it without giving users a good way to know that it’s misinformation.

What about a student who uses Google for homework and asks which countries in Africa start with the letter K? Although Kenya meets these criteria, Google’s AI Overviews incorrectly responded that such countries do not exist.

Google has acknowledged issues with AI summaries and said it has addressed them. But the concern remains: can you really trust the answers you receive through this service?

How to avoid AI responses

There are alternatives. You can always go back to the traditional Google search with its 10 blue links. Click ‘More’ in the menu – All, News, Images, Maps, Videos and more – directly below the search field at the top of the Google search page and select ‘Web’.

You can then do what you’ve probably been doing for decades: search some of the top results, visit a few of those sites, and decide for yourself. It takes some work, but it gives you back the ability to research multiple sites and evidence to support or refute something. More importantly, you leave the possibilities open for learning, discovery, and serendipity.

AI Overviews is like fast food delivered through a drive-through window: it’s fast, hot, and convenient, but not the healthiest choice. Searching through traditional Google search results is like looking at a menu at a restaurant and placing an order, only to have it take a while before it gets to your table. You can ask your server questions about these items and even request some changes to the restaurant’s offerings. It is prepared with more care, customization and control, but also takes longer and can be more expensive.

However, these are not the only methods for finding information. There are alternatives to Google’s search engine, including special search tools.

For scholarly needs, Google Scholar, Semantic Scholar, and CORE are useful places to look for research papers and citations. Looking for medical information? Try PubMed, ScienceDirect and OpenMD. For legal needs, some services include Fastcase, Caselaw Access Project and CourtListener.

Concerned about privacy? Check out DuckDuckGo, Startpage and Swisscows. If you still want AI-generated answers, some of the alternatives to Google’s AI Overviews and rival Bing’s Copilot include and Komo, which offer more transparency about the data they collect about you, offer more privacy, and also offer ways to opt out of having your data collected for training their AI models.

A balanced information diet

You may not be able to afford to eat out at a nice restaurant or prepare every meal from scratch every time, but it’s important to avoid having to endure a drive-through for all your food. After all, you are what you eat, and similarly, you are how you search.

It’s easy to fall for sensational headlines and bite-sized news stories without context. But you don’t have to let that define you. You can expand the scope of your search. It’s fine to take a drive every now and then and go for AI overviews, but it’s important to also find other, healthier ways to meet your needs – for food and for information.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and analysis to help you understand our complex world.

It is written by: Chirag Shah, University of Washington.

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Chirag Shah has received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and The Gates Foundation in the past year.

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