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Of Course Google Is Biased

By Rob Enderle
Sep 3, 2018 5:00 AM PT
google should adopt rules to reduce bias in its search engine algorithms

Bias is a nasty beast. A market research class I took in graduate school focused on the identification and elimination of bias. My final paper was on an intentionally biased piece of research. It was far easier to introduce bias and then talk about the bias than it would have been to attempt to do unbiased work and defend it as unbiased.

For that reason alone, the Trump administration's recent complaints that Google's search engine is biased are almost certainly true.

The nature of the bias, however, has not been determined. It actually could be bias in favor of Trump (though the odds are against that because Google was so tight with the Obama administration and liberals in general).

The perception of bias simply may be driven by the overwhelming amount of negative ink on the administration and a revenue-focused algorithm that pushes people to that volume.

I'll share some thoughts on bias and then close with my product of the week: The Lenovo Yoga Book C930, announced at IFA last week, is one of the most innovative laptop/tablet products on the market.

Why Bias Is Bad

Bias is bad because it creates an unknown variation from the truth. A biased answer to a question is by nature not accurate. It results from taking reality through a filter that alters the perception of that reality and then produces a false conclusion based on the filter rather than the reality.

For instance, suppose someone asks me what car to buy, and I say, "Don't buy a Ford, it stands for 'Fix Or Repair Daily' and all Fords suck." What I likely did was take my personal experience, based on ownership of a number of bad Ford cars, and use it to color my view, ultimately concluding that the brand was low quality.

In reality, Ford's quality is in line with other similar car makers -- and often better, depending on the line. So, even if the best car for you might be a Ford, I've excluded all Fords from consideration due to my bias. My advice would be suboptimal at best. At worst it could influence you to make a truly bad decision.

One of the most obvious places we see bias play out is in relationships. When we go into a relationship it is often with a bias toward our partner. We see the good, not the bad, which is due in part to the fact that in a new relationship people are initially on their best behavior. It's also because we downplay the bad or ignore it, focusing instead on what we want to see.

Flip to the other side. During a breakup or divorce, our perception is 180 degrees different. Now we can see only the bad and not the good. That once angelic partner has become a close and personal friend of Satan. Both perceptions likely are biased. During the good times, the partner wasn't all good, and when the relationship failed, the partner wasn't all bad.

One of the ways to ensure better relationships is to do your homework on potential partners up front, before you become invested. What were their past relationships like? What are they looking for in a new relationship? Are they honest and transparent? Can you tolerate their family? Are your most important views, values and goals aligned?

More typically, people are interested in whether prospective partners are hot or financially secure. Though these are factors to consider, they shouldn't override the others. Assuming that success is either a long relationship, marriage, or at least a lasting friendship, then doing the honest assessment up front should get you closer to a good match. At the very least, you waste less time on sure failures, and are more likely to avoid nasty dramas.

Google Is Biased

People create the algorithms that Google uses, which increasingly are considered AIs. Any bias those people have likely will be built into the algorithms because we don't see our own biases. We don't intentionally put filters between our brains and eyes, but they get there nonetheless, and the result is that our biased reality is our reality.

A more common expression of this is that to us, perception is reality. The Google employees who build and test the Google algorithms for accuracy naturally are biased.

From the standpoint of political bias, we should see a bias to the left in Google searches, given Google's history with the Obama administration and the fact that tech companies, including Google, generally tend to lean left.

What makes this difficult to confirm is that the news media obviously is biased against the Trump presidency. You really can't blame them, though, because Trump stands out as pounding on media as dishonest. So even if Google were unbiased, the results from Google search would look biased, because of what appears to be an overwhelming bias in the news media.

The big problem with Google, however, is likely not political bias but financial bias. We don't pay Google for our results. We aren't really the customer. In Google's world -- and this is the same for social media as well -- we are the product. The customer is the vendor paying to find out about us, so they can sell to us more effectively.

For instance, if I want to buy tires for one of my Jaguars (yes, I have more than one) the search starts with a listing from stores with prices. Some do attempt to answer the question, but likely are biased toward the tires that provide them the best margins.

The one relatively unbiased source, the Jaguar Forum, was down mid-page and overwhelmed by the retailers. If Google were unbiased, it would rank the Jaguar Forum and sources like Consumer Reports toward the top, because, odds are good that they'd be a ton less biased than companies that are tying to sell me whatever tire they have overstocked.

Now having the best tire does have an impact on your life. It can make the difference between avoiding an accident and dying in one. I should point out that this isn't always the case, however. If you do a search on "best ways to lose weight," for instance, Google does seem to put the independent sources up front, and it isn't until the second page that you suddenly seem to get overwhelmed by biased vendor links.

On politics it gets interesting. If you search on just the names "Trump Clinton" you are overwhelmed with negative Trump stories. To be clear, it does look like the stories out there are overwhelmingly negative except for those from Fox, which don't show up at all on the first page (at least they didn't when I tried it).

However, we also know that Fox is one of the most powerful news organizations in America, so its stories should have shown up on the first page. If they don't appear, then what else from the conservative side are we missing?

You can see this if you just add the word "Fox" to Trump and Clinton. Granted, that is obviously biased toward Fox, but you suddenly see stories that should have come up in the more generic search.

We know that conservative interests largely align with Fox while liberal positions are spread across a wider group of news suppliers. That should have pushed the Fox coverage to the top if the algorithm were based on general interest, but it didn't.

I'm a conservative myself. Given that these results should have been biased toward my interests and not away from them, it appears to confirm the likelihood that Google's search engine algorithm has a goal other than meeting my personal needs and interests.

Now I'm not suggesting any of these news sources are unbiased, the chart I link to above clearly shows they aren't. However, we are focused on Google search and not the news services right now.

It appears that Google's bias is stronger politically than it is financially, because people don't like to look at information that disagrees with their world view. Were Google exclusively, or mostly, revenue-driven, it likely would just give me Fox results (still bias, but driven by the need for profit rather than a political agenda).

Back to Bias Being Bad

Regardless of whether the bias is financial or political, it is not in our best interests because search results lead to decisions. Ideally, we should be getting the closest thing to the truth that Google can deliver. That doesn't appear to be the case, at least when it comes to politics or car tires.

Now that would suggest the need for substantial government oversight, but how do we ensure that those doing the oversight aren't swapping Google's bias for their own? A bunch of Republican moderators would result in an all Fox result, and a bunch of Democrats would favor MSNBC. Neither would be better.

That doesn't mean we don't need to prioritize fixing the problem. As we increasingly look to AIs to provide for our care and survival, it's critical that we make sure those AIs have our best interests as their primary drivers. So far, as Google and Facebook showcase, we have failed to implement the proper protections and assurances.

Wrapping Up: Perhaps IBM Is the Answer

When it comes to getting ahead of this, the one company that truly stands out is IBM, which earlier this year issued a series of internal edicts: Transparency and Trust in the Cognitive Era.

Basically, they are rules to prevent IBM from developing technology that was counter to the interests of the people who used it. Before Google gets regulated, which now may be a foregone conclusion, the company likely should create a similar list and take it far more seriously than its old "don't be evil" motto.

We users may be Google's product, but if its focus on creating political or financial bias harms us, then it likely harms Google as well. This class of Google users includes investors, employees, and the employees of the firms that fund Google.

Put differently, Google still has to live in the world it screws up. What I'm suggesting is that if avoiding regulation isn't enough of a motivator to shift to IBM's more human-centric path, then maybe staying alive might be. Just saying...

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

There are two products that really stand out to me as the only true 2-in-1 computers in market. They are the Surface Go and the Yoga Book.

What makes them fit into this category better than others is their size and weight. Both are light enough and small enough to be considered a tablet (we know from surveys that most people will not accept a tablet that has an 11-inch or larger screen or a carry weight of much over a pound.

The first Yoga Book stood out because of its more versatile flat keyboard that could work as a digitizer, but that keyboard was too strange and limited for most.

Instead of that odd flat keyboard, the just-announced Yoga Book C930 has an ePaper display with touch capability and haptics. This allows you to not only write and draw on the keyboard but see what you drew on the keyboard as well.


Lenovo Yoga Book C930
Lenovo Yoga Book C930

In addition, the ePaper display makes for a better high-contrast reading platform than any LCD or OLED screen can, and ePaper uses a tiny fraction of the power an LED screen consumes.

Better with the WAN option so that you are always connected, the Yoga Book C930 really sets the bar in terms of innovation and delivers on the promise of a true 2-in-1. It is a legitimate, though small, laptop as well as a tablet you will be comfortable using as a tablet.

Another really interesting thing about the keyboard is that it can shift not only between modes but also between languages and key configurations, near instantly.

The only note of discord is that it has an Intel rather than an ARM processor, which likely would have been more appropriate for this form factor. I expect Lenovo is holding out for the Snapdragon 1000 before making that jump.

The Yoga Book C930 is arguably the most innovative notebook I've seen in some time, and as a result, it is my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.


Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.


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