This week, the tech industry’s darling Google went through one of its most embarrassing flops ever. Desperate to catch up with the Microsoft-backed ChatGPT, the current leading generative AI platform that has raked in more than 200 million users in just two months from launch, Google hastily unveiled its competing platform, called Bard, on Monday.
Just like ChatGPT, Bard is a conversational AI that is able to generate compelling responses to users’ prompts by leveraging vast troves of data that Google has access to it. The implications of this technology for search are enormous, but despite the hype, Google’s bot isn’t off to a great start.
In one of Google’s demos, a shared GIF that was meant to show off Bard’s superhuman abilities to answer almost any question reliably and concisely actually backfired horribly. The GIF showed Bard answering the question: “What new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope can I tell my 9-year-old about?” Bard offered a three-bullet point answer, including the assertion that JWST is the telescope that “took the very first pictures of a planet outside of our own solar system.”
That’s would have been a pretty impressive distillation of recent news in astronomy by a machine — if it wasn’t completely wrong.
For the record, the first image of a planet outside our solar system — known as an exoplanet — was taken 14 years prior to JWST’s launch. This distinction belongs to European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, which made such pioneering observations in 2003. JWST did indeed take a picture of an exoplanet in 2022, when it snapped a direct image of a distant world about seven times heavier than Jupiter, located in the HIP 65426 star system. That was JWST’s first picture of an exoplanet, which Bard probably confused for the first picture of an exoplanet ever.
Ironically, that’s a very common error people make, so Bart turned out to deliver a reasonably natural human response, confusion and all — but the reason we want machines performing this work in the first place is that we expect them to be precise and accurate!
Imagine this: you have a product that isn’t launched yet, and people are already calling it a failure. That’s a damning slip-up, one that cost Google and its shareholders dearly. Once Bard’s error was widely revealed on Wednesday, it wiped $100 billion off Alphabet’s stock, Google’s parent company, with shares plunging by more than 10% at its lowest low.
As far as product demos go, this is pretty awful. But it’s not the first time we’ve seen a high-flying technology company embarrass itself. It’s been a while but do you remember that time when:
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1. Steve Jobs’ fancy new iPhone didn’t connect to WiFi live on stage
Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ demo of the new iPhone 4 and iOS 4.0 capabilities in 2010 came to an abrupt halt during a high-profile event in San Francisco. Jobs was just about to demonstrate the new iPhone’s high-density screen but he could not get example webpages to load.
Jobs fumbled about on stage while he looked perplexed at the 404 errors on his screen, before pleading to the audience packed with bloggers, reporters, and developers to turn off their WiFi to spare bandwidth for his presentation. An audience member even shouted ‘Try Verizon!’, mocking Apple’s exclusive deal that it had with AT&T at the time. Not a good look for Apple, that’s for sure.
2. That time Volvo crashed a car during a demo (twice)
“So, ladies and gentlemen, we have some kind of mishap in the testing here…” said the awkward voice of a Volvo spokesperson, during a test that was supposed to show off the Swedish auto manufacturer’s brand-new automatic parking for the C60. But mishap is a gross euphemism since the car didn’t just miss the parking space, but slammed right into a truck, almost catastrophically damaging the vehicle. I’ll park that car myself, thank you!
You’d think Volvo would have learned from this, uhm, mishap, but then it invited journalists again to witness the company’s new automatic braking system. So journalists lined up, phones in hand, for the momentous occasion. But these poor souls would’ve been better advised to go to their local council meeting. At least there they have free coffee and no concussions.
Instead of the car sensing an obstacle (read, test dummy journalists) and hitting the brakes by itself, the vehicle literally rolled over two people (they only had a few scratches, but still…). Mamma mia!
3. When Honda’s Asimo robot took a nasty fall
Japan has a long history of excellence in robotics, but you’d never tell if you were in the audience of this 2006 epic fail.
Honda’s $1 million humanoid robot Asimo was manufactured by Honda with the aim of becoming the ultimate assistant, butler, maid, companion, you name it. Asimo can recognize faces and voices with stereoscopic cameras and a trio of head-mounted microphones. It can greet you, serve you a beverage from a tray, and escort you to the appropriate meeting room. It’s a pretty sophisticated robot. But it has one weak spot: its puny legs.
During a demo, a Honda-affiliated presenter introduces Asimo on stage and ‘invites’ the robot to climb up a flight of stairs. Asimo turns its head 90 degrees toward the audience as it starts ascending the stairs confidently. All seemed to go well for a couple of seconds until disaster struck and Asimo fell back, sparks flying about. Immediately, a robo-medic arrives at the scene and installs a shader between the robot and the audience to spare everyone the embarrassment. It is, however, all pointless as Asimo is still mumbling in the background. We’ll all probably pay for this during the upcoming first robot uprising.
4. Tesla’s Cybertruck shattered ‘bulletproof’ window
This wouldn’t have been a compilation of epic tech fails worth your time if it didn’t include the most socially awkward yet at the same time the most desperate attention-seeking billionaire in the world: Elon Musk.
In 2019, Tesla unveiled a futuristic, stainless steel, angular design for a new electric vehicle called the Cybertruck. Stainless steel is incredibly sturdy, which should help protect passengers in the event of an accident. But Tesla engineers probably realized there’s no point in having a strong chassis if there are other weak spots, such as the windows, which brings us to Tesla’s Armored Glass and the ensuing epic fail when Cybertruck was first unveiled in Hawthorne, California.
First, the Cybertruck’s window was hit by a sledgehammer, which it remarkably withstood. But when Musk invited someone on stage to throw a large steel ball at the vehicle, this time the window cracked. Musk dared the person to try again, and again a second window cracked, accompanied by the billionaire’s fake laugh in the background, who was likely thinking about how many people he should fire at that moment.
According to a rumor, Musk initially suggested that they fire a gun at the truck — hopefully jokingly — but cooler heads prevailed that evening. Musk? Well, we’ve all seen his tweets. Smh.
5. Bill Gates’ blue screen of death
Every Windows user has had at least one encounter with the dreaded ‘Blue Screen of Death’ (aka BSOD) on a personal computer. This universally despised interface is supposed to relay information on why the Windows-powered computer crashed. This has literally happened to everyone, I don’t need to go into any specifics, but what’s hilarious is that this also happened to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates some 25 years ago.
This would’ve been fine if Gates met a dose of his own medicine in his private office, but this time it occurred live on stage while he was sharing the stage with Microsoft VP of Marketing Chris Capossela, while the two were demoing a new plug and play feature for Windows 98. The Blue Screen of death still exists on the latest versions of Windows, and it appears that Microsoft would never ditch it.