Microsoft has removed an article advising tourists to visit the “beautiful” Ottawa Food Bank on an empty stomach, after facing derision about the company’s reliance on artificial intelligence for news.
But an anonymous Microsoft spokesperson later blamed the article’s publication on “human error,” rather than “unsupervised AI.”
Posted last week and titled “Headed to Ottawa? Here’s What You Shouldn’t Miss!” the article listed 15 must-see attractions for visitors to the capital.
The list was riddled with errors. It featured a photo of the Rideau River at an inlet on the Rideau Canal and a photo of the Rideau Canal at an inlet on Parc Omega near Montebello, Que. He advised tourists to enjoy the pristine grass of “Parliament Hills”.
But the entry of the Ottawa Food Bank earned the lion’s share of derision in tech publications and on social media. The article called the food bank one of Ottawa’s “beautiful attractions,” before placing it third on the list.
Most of the post simply describes what the food bank does, but it closes with a strange recommendation:
“Life is hard enough as it is. Consider going into it on an empty stomach.”
That appears to be an out-of-context rewrite of a paragraph on the food bank’s website. “Life is challenging enough,” she says. “Imagine facing it on an empty stomach.”
“It’s pretty obvious a robot wrote this”
The food bank is located in a run-of-the-mill industrial area on the eastern edge of Ottawa. It doesn’t even directly serve the public, but rather functions as a distribution warehouse to supply the partner agencies that do. Executive Director Rachael Wilson said the article drew shock, blank stares and some laughter among the staff there.
“We were quite surprised to see that we had made this list,” he said. “Thankfully by now everyone has realized that this was clearly not an article we were a part of and it’s pretty obvious a robot wrote it.”
The item was signed “Microsoft Travel.” There is nothing on the page to identify it as a product of artificial intelligence, but the company later acknowledged that it was generated by algorithms subject to human review. He suggested that it was the human review, not the algorithm, that fell short.
CBC contacted WE Communications, which handles media relations for Microsoft. He said an investigation has been completed and shared the following statement from an anonymous Microsoft spokesperson:
“This article has been removed and we have identified that the issue was due to human error. The article was not published by an unsupervised AI. We combined the power of technology with the expertise of content editors to bring to light the 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 that this type of content is not published in the future.”
Microsoft laid off dozens of journalists in 2020 in a move to put more trust in artificial intelligence, according to various news reports at the time. Those journalists were responsible for curating content for Microsoft platforms, including MSN and the Edge browser.
Wilson said no one at Microsoft called her to discuss the story, either before or after it was published. She said the episode underscores the importance of keeping “human beings to check things out before we turn them off.”
She said she can understand how a robot crawls the Internet with search terms and algorithms, but no amount of context could mistake the food bank for a “cool thing to do” in the capital, given how pressing the security issue has become. Food in Ottawa.
“Unfortunately, we are very present right now. Food insecurity is a big problem here in Ottawa,” he said. “So it’s a bit disconcerting for a robot to realize that food insecurity is such a difficult problem.”
Article called ‘inappropriate and very disgusting’
Paris Marx, a technology writer and host of the podcast, first noted the strangeness of the article. Technology will not save uswho wrote that “Microsoft is really hitting it out of the park with its AI-generated travel stories!”
Microsoft is really hitting it out of the park with its AI-generated travel stories! If you’re visiting Ottawa, she highly recommends the Ottawa Food Bank and offers some great advice for tourists: “Consider going on an empty stomach.” https://t.co/7bvGemDad2
“We are told that AI will fill all of these niches and have all of these abilities to produce text in all of these subject areas,” they said. “Even the most basic ones like travel planning… it doesn’t work properly.
“I thought it was funny, but actually a bit bleak,” Marx said. “It’s just another example of these tools not living up to the claims that are being made.”
Marx’s tweet was followed by an article on the Verge, a website focused on technology and science news. However, the Microsoft Travel article was soon removed. remains accessible in an Internet archive.
Beyond the geographical errors and the inexplicable recommendation to fast before enjoying the food bank, the article exhibited an unusual writing style. He advised tourists that Winterlude offers them the chance to experience “the biggest snow in North America,” while calling the Rideau Canal “naturally frozen.”
The article also offered the following perspective:
“The Canadian Parliament Buildings are the buildings that house the Parliament of Canada.”
But Wilson said the article wasn’t entirely out of line.
“It did a lot of things right in terms of the amount of fresh food we put out,” he said. “We are very focused on providing healthy and nutritious food, but any kind of comment about showing up on an empty stomach was really inappropriate and very off-putting.”
‘Human Writers’ Wanted: Ottawa Tourism
In a separate statement on Friday, Julia Thomson, Ottawa Tourism’s manager of destination development, suggested that robots might not make the best travel writers.
“Examples like this, where AI is used to write articles that fall within the domain of travel writers, show that human cognitive ability to provide first-hand accounts of destination experiences really cannot be effectively replaced by AI. Thomson said. .
She said Ottawa Tourism regularly works with “human writers” from well-known outlets to promote travel to the capital.
“These are the travel stories we think should get attention and spark conversation, and it’s disheartening to see more attention being paid to low-quality content,” Thomson wrote.
“We would invite Microsoft Travel to consider hiring a human travel writer, and we would gladly show them the many must-see destinations in Ottawa for visitors for a first-hand travel account.”