Google says AI update will improve search result quality in ‘snippets’

If you’ve ever Googled something only to be met with a little info box highlighting the top answer, you’ve encountered one of Google’s “featured snippets.” Featured snippets are the little bite-sized Google results the search engine packages up and delivers to the top of the page for many searches.

The problem with featured snippets is that, from a user perspective, these results appear to be extra trustworthy — they’re featured up at the top of the results page, after all. Since Google first introduced them years ago, they’ve only become more prevalent over time, but much like the rest of Google search results, the snippets are algorithmically populated not programmed by human curators.

Google says that it is rolling out an under-the-hood change that should improve the answers people see in these info boxes at the top of many results pages. According to Google, a new AI model called the “Multitask Unified Model” empowers its search ranking system to check its own work, in a way. The AI model accomplishes this by cross-referencing the top bolded text portion of a search snippet result against established high-quality search results to see if they are saying the same thing, even if they do it with different wording.

Google snippet search result

Image Credits: Google

“We’ve found that this consensus-based technique has meaningfully improved the quality and helpfulness of featured snippet callouts,” Google Search VP Pandu Nayak wrote in a blog post.

According to Google, another problem is that sometimes the search engine delivers reasonable-seeming answers to a search query that itself is flawed. Google’s latest AI model should also help its results ranking system figure out when displaying results in a snippet isn’t appropriate because the premise of the question is false. The company says featured snippets are now appearing 40% less in these instances.

“This is particularly helpful for questions where there is no answer: For example, a recent search for ‘when did snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln’ provided a snippet highlighting an accurate date and information about Lincoln’s assassination, but this clearly isn’t the most helpful way to display this result,” Nayak wrote.

Google also announced that it would be expanding its use of warning messages for searches that fail to produce results that the search engine has “high confidence” in. The company already uses those content advisories for emerging topics that lack established search results but says it will now deploy them in instances where the overall search results don’t meet its quality standards.

VR helps us remember

Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that people remember information better if it is presented in VR vs. on a two dimensional personal computer. This means VR education could be an improvement on tablet or device-based learning.

“This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at UMD.

The study was quite complex and looked at recall in forty subjects who were comfortable with computers and VR. The researchers was an 8.8 percent improvement in recall.

To test the system they created a “memory palace” where they placed various images. This sort of “spatial mnemonic encoding” is a common memory trick that allows for better recall.

“Humans have always used visual-based methods to help them remember information, whether it’s cave drawings, clay tablets, printed text and images, or video,” said lead researcher Eric Krokos. “We wanted to see if virtual reality might be the next logical step in this progression.”

From the study:

Both groups received printouts of well-known faces–including Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marilyn Monroe–and familiarized themselves with the images. Next, the researchers showed the participants the faces using the memory palace format with two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town. Both of the study groups navigated each memory palace for five minutes. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down.

Next, Krokos asked the users to memorize the location of each of the faces shown. Half the faces were positioned in different locations within the interior setting–Oprah Winfrey appeared at the top of a grand staircase; Stephen Hawking was a few steps down, followed by Shrek. On the ground floor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s face sat above majestic wooden table, while The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was positioned in the center of the room.

Similarly, for the medieval town setting, users viewed images that included Hillary Clinton’s face on the left side of a building, with Mickey Mouse and Batman placed at varying heights on nearby structures.

Then, the scene went blank, and after a two-minute break, each memory palace reappeared with numbered boxes where the faces had been. The research participants were then asked to recall which face had been in each location where a number was now displayed.

The key, say the researchers, was for participants to identify each face by its physical location and its relation to surrounding structures and faces–and also the location of the image relative to the user’s own body.

Desktop users could perform the feat but VR users performed it statistically better, a fascinating twist on the traditional role of VR in education. The researchers believe that VR adds a layer of reality to the experience that lets the brain build a true “memory palace” in 3D space.

“Many of the participants said the immersive ‘presence’ while using VR allowed them to focus better. This was reflected in the research results: 40 percent of the participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using VR over the desktop display,” wrote the researchers.

“This leads to the possibility that a spatial virtual memory palace–experienced in an immersive virtual environment–could enhance learning and recall by leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement and acceleration,” said researcher Catherine Plaisant.