‘Clumsy, creepy, wrong’: Google ‘inclusive language’ function to curb politically incorrect language

A new “inclusive language” function from Google that suggests politically correct word substitutions as you type in Google Docs is drawing harsh criticism from journalists and civil liberties watchdog groups who claim the feature does more to reinforce biases than cure them.

The assistive-writing feature works much the way Grammarly suggests punctuation and spelling changes, only instead of nudging you into using that comma you deemed unnecessary, this will prompt you to change words such as “landlord” to “property owner” and “mankind” to “humankind,” according to The Telegraph. Additionally, more gender-neutral language, such as “stay-at-home-spouse” as opposed to “housewife,” is suggested.

Should you be writing about computer stuff, Google will now warn you that the word “motherboard” may not be inclusive to all readers.

“Potentially discriminatory or inappropriate language will be flagged, along with suggestions on how to make your writing more inclusive and appropriate for your audience,” Google states, but others aren’t so sure.

“Google’s new word warnings aren’t assistive, they’re deeply intrusive,” said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties watchdog group. “With Google’s new assistive writing tool, the company is not only reading every word you type but telling you what to type.”

“This speech-policing is profoundly clumsy, creepy and wrong, often reinforcing bias,” Carlo continued. “Invasive tech like this undermines privacy, freedom of expression and increasingly freedom of thought.”

 

This Big Tech “nudging” behavior, says Lazar Radic, a senior scholar in economic policy at the International Centre for Law and Economics, “presumes to override the preferences of individuals on the assumption that the nudger knows better than the nudgee what is better for him or her — and, further, for society as a whole.”

“Not only is this incredibly conceited and patronizing — it can also serve to stifle individuality, self-expression, experimentation, and — from a purely utilitarian perspective — progress,” Radic stated.

“What if ‘landlord’ is the better choice because it makes more sense, narratively, in a novel?” he asked. “What if ‘house owner’ sounds wooden and fails to invoke the same sense of poignancy? What if the defendant really was a ‘housewife’ — and refers to herself as such? Should all written pieces — including written forms of art, such as novels, lyrics, and poetry — follow the same, boring template?”

With the rollout of the Google Docs program, the “inclusive language” function is turned on by default.

And, notes The Telegraph, the suggested corrections are wildly inconsistent.

“Surprisingly, a transcribed interview of the neo-Nazi and former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke — in which he uses offensive racial slurs and talks about hunting black people — prompted no warnings when it was entered into a Google Docs program that included the function,” The Telegraph reports. “But at the same time it suggested that President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address should say ‘for all humankind’ instead of the original phrase ‘for all mankind.'”

In a bizarre twist, users at Vice Magazine discovered when they entered Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount into a doc, the inclusive warning alerted that “God’s ‘wonderful’ works” would be less offensive if the works were “great, “marvelous,” or “lovely.”

“Assisted writing uses language understanding models, which rely on millions of common phrases and sentences to automatically learn how people communicate,” said a Google spokesperson. “This also means they can reflect some human cognitive biases.”

“Our technology is always improving,” the spokesperson continued, “and we don’t yet (and may never) have a complete solution to identifying and mitigating all unwanted word associations and biases.”

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