From November to January, technology website CNET published a series of financial advice articles written by artificial intelligence (AI), but an audit confirmed that the majority of these pieces contained factual errors, serious omissions, and plagiarised content.
The CNET editorial team failed to catch and correct these errors prior to publication.
CNET suspends disastrous ‘test’
Technology site CNET has admitted to publishing a string of low-quality articles written by artificial intelligence. All of the articles were misleadingly published under the byline “CNET Money Staff,” implying to casual observers that they were the work of a human hand.
On Tuesday CNET confirmed it would end the practice in what it now calls a “test,” of a an “internally designed AI engine.”
The publication offered no apology to its audience for the long list of inaccuracies and wrong financial advice it had printed since November.
“We stand by the integrity and quality of the information we provide our readers,” said CNET.
CNET’s AI engine was tasked with creating financial services explainers and over three month period proceeded to serve up wrong financial information to its readers. Some of the subjects of these articles included topics such as, “What Factors Determine Your Credit Score?” and “What Is a Credit Card Number?”
Under the guise of providing expert information, CNET published a total of 77 AI-written pieces without adequate safeguards. According to the technology outlet, the articles were outlined by human staff members before being written by the AI and were subsequently checked by their editors before final publication.
Somewhere CNET’s system fell apart. When one of the articles was recently cited for obvious falsehoods, CNET was forced to audit the AI’s body of work. It found that 41 of the 77 pieces required significant corrections. It appears that absolutely everybody took their eye off the ball.
A compendium of nonsense
Included in the errors which made their way to curious CNET readers was the following explanation of how compound interest works.
According to the CNET AI, “if you deposit $10,000 into a savings account that earns 3% interest compounding annually, you’ll earn $10,300 at the end of the first year.”
This certainly sounds exciting, but in reality, an investor would receive the rather smaller sum of $300 of interest over the first year.
In the same piece, the following explanation of loan repayments is offered: “For example, if you take out a car loan for $25,000, and your interest rate is 4%, you’ll pay a flat $1,000 in interest per year.”
This, again, is completely wrong. Once the person who has taken the loan starts to pay back on a monthly basis, they would only owe interest on the remaining sum. In reality, there is never a year in which the person repaying the loan would ever pay back “a flat $1,000.”
Other basic mistakes and errors are littered across the 41 inaccurate AI articles. For instance, an article on credit card penalties stated the wrong dollar value of a late fee, while a report on certificates of deposit failed to include key information and facts, and an article about prequalification for credit cards was found to contain plagiarised content.
As one former CNET staffer put it, “this is so incredibly disappointing and disheartening, but it’s not surprising. What other choice do you have when you lay off all your talented and loyal writers?”
Humans make ‘mistakes’ too
The editorial line taken by CNET is that AIs, like humans, are prone to making mistakes. Even so, CNET has sought to minimize the scandal by stating that only a small number of their error-strewn articles required “substantial correction.”
It is clear then that the failure at CNET was not one simply of artificial intelligence but of human bosses failing to exercise their better judgment. The heart of the matter lies in why those mistakes were allowed to be made in the first place.
What motivated CNET to churn out large numbers of partially inaccurate and partially plagiarised articles, and why did the company only reveal its ‘test’ after it had been caught in the act?
It’s worth noting that CNET’s parent company, Red Ventures, profits through affiliate advertising programs. When a visitor to one of their sites ultimately purchases a credit card from one of its sites, CNET makes money. Besides CNET the company owns numerous other publications including Bankrate, The Points Guy, and CreditCards.com.
Given that the AI articles performed well as SEO bait, CNET’s biggest mistake may have been placing affiliate dollars before the integrity of their own journalistic teams. That, sadly, is a very human mistake indeed.