Why Google's introduction of AI into search is a really big deal

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Over the past few decades, Google’s search engine has been the most important force shaping the modern internet, so much so that the company’s name has become the literal dictionary definition of finding anything on the web.

The tech giant recently began introducing dramatic changes to how search works that could have major implications not just for Google itself, but for the entire online ecosystem.

Starting earlier this month, certain search queries will begin to display answers generated by artificial intelligence above the usual list of blue links. These answers, called AI Overviews, use Google's AI model Gemini to scrape information from across the web to provide concise answers without any scrolling or extra clicks.

Source: GoogleSource: Google

Source: Google

Like other AI models, Gemini has access to and leverages vast amounts of online information to generate responses, or, in the company's words, “let Google search for you.” So if you type something like “exercises for knee pain,” Gemini will use its vast database on that topic to provide a list of stretches and strength training moves, saving you the trouble of clicking through to individual websites.

Google adding AI to search is not unusual. Nearly every major tech company, including Yahoo, has been increasingly integrating AI into their online experiences in recent months. But the changes to Google Search are even more significant because of how critical it is to how we use the internet. More than 90% of the world's search traffic, or 8.5 billion searches per day, occurs on Google. A large part of the internet economy depends on capturing attention and clicks through Google Search.

Since its launch in the US, most of the talk about AI Overviews has been about the bad results it's been producing. Google searches have suggested adding glue to pizza sauce, suggested eating rocks for digestive health, and claimed astronauts encountered cats on the moon. The phenomenon, known as hallucinations, is something all AI models struggle with. But many tech experts worry about the impact of the world's most important knowledge engine suddenly being filled with unreliable or potentially dangerous falsehoods.

AI optimists say that Overviews, while imperfect, represents a future in which people can access the information they need more effectively and efficiently than ever before. They argue that the issues with inaccurate information are merely short-term issues, and that accuracy will increase over time as Google finds and corrects shortcomings, which the company is reportedly actively working on now.

But some of the biggest concerns about Overviews have nothing to do with its accuracy. Some experts worry that if AI-generated summaries appear at the top of search results, people will stop clicking on the links they see, leading to fewer views and ultimately less revenue for sites that rely on search traffic for their business. They worry that Overviews will eventually drive online publishers (from news services to entertainment and recipe blogs) out of business, leaving no one to create the information the AI ​​needs to generate answers.

Overviews is currently available in the United States, but Google says it plans to open it up to at least 1 billion users worldwide by the end of the year.

The company also previewed new AI-powered features it plans to add to its search functionality in the near future, including schedule planning, the ability to answer very specific questions, and the ability to search by video instead of words.

The Internet economy is in crisis

“If AI answer engines work well enough, users won't need to click links; whatever they're looking for will just appear at the top of search results. And that could undermine the great bargain that underpins Google's relationship with the open web: give us the stories, we'll give you the traffic.” — Kevin Roose, The New York Times

The average person will probably like AI

“We think billions of people would be happy to receive answers to complex queries directly on the search results page, if the information was accurate enough.” — Casey Newton, Platform Lead

Google is no longer interested in informing users

“Providing a robust, near-essential web search service is no longer a priority. It hasn't been that way for years. Google is instead bombarding users with a basic, buggy new gadget that's lacking all of the things that made Google an empire, a verb, a trusted steward of the information superhighway.” — Nitish Pahwa, Slate

AI is helping bring Google search back to its original purpose

“In some ways, generative AI is marking a return to the way Google Search was before it was infused with product marketing, snippets, sidebars, and Wikipedia excerpts, all of which arguably contributed to a decline in the quality of the product. Rather than relying on an oracle, the AI-powered search described by Google executives seemed like a more comfortable version of Google, pulling together related tabs and suggesting the most useful links, even prompting you to click.” — Matteo Wong, The Atlantic

AI may eventually kill all content that needs to survive

“By making it harder for humans to contribute to the web's collective pool of knowledge, Google's summary answers could leave its own and others' AI tools with less accurate, less timely and less interesting information.” — Scott Rosenberg, Axios

Google is rolling out AI to a lot of people who aren't ready for it yet

“This feature will expose billions of people who have never used a chatbot before to AI-generated text. AI Overview is designed to save you time, but it can lead to unreliable results.” — Reece Rogers, Wired

When information is taken out of its original context, people cannot decide whether it can be trusted.

“They don't care about the original source or where it came from. They don't look at the comments. They don't know who the author is. I think that's really important for digital media literacy.” — Stuart Geiger, professor of data science at UC San Diego, Marketplace

No matter how much big tech companies push AI, human-made content will ultimately win out.

“Users will quickly come to recognize AI-generated content and find it less interesting and compelling than human-generated content. Like great novelists, journalists have a voice and style that people find interesting, and this will become even more apparent as AI content becomes less interesting.” — Rob Meadows, CTO of OpenWeb, in a statement to CNET

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