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A gaggle of questions

TECHNOLOGY | Field-testing DuckDuckGo’s AI-powered search engine

Photo illustration by Rachel Beatty

A gaggle of questions
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Artificial intelligence is the hot topic in the tech world, whether it’s ChatGPT or Microsoft’s new Bing chatbot. Search engine DuckDuckGo joined the fray on March 8, when it announced a limited rollout of its generative AI-assisted tool, DuckAssist. DuckDuckGo is ­marketing DuckAssist as an “instant answer” feature that draws from Wikipedia and similar sites to quickly summarize answers to common queries. 

Can AI replace the task of hunting through pages of links? And will its answers be accurate and unbiased? To test out DuckAssist, I asked the search engine a variety of questions about religion, history, politics, and more. The early results, at least, ­suggest the feature isn’t quite ready to replace due diligence.

DuckAssist appears as a small bubble that sometimes pops up above the regular search engine results in DuckDuckGo’s browser. Press the “ask” button, and the feature generates an answer based mainly on Wikipedia articles, with a summary sometimes pulled word-for-word from Wikipedia. (A DuckAssist ­disclaimer notes the response has not been checked for accuracy.)

As of mid-March, if you typed a question into the DuckDuckGo browser’s search engine, DuckAssist sometimes popped up and sometimes didn’t. According to a spokesperson for the company, DuckAssist is most likely to appear in answer to fact-based queries phrased as questions. That was true when I asked “How many U.S. states are there?” (Answer: “50.”)

When I asked some key questions about religion, the feature gave helpful responses. Question: “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” Answer: “The articles indicate that Jesus was raised from the dead … and that his resurrection is the guarantee that all the Christian dead will be resurrected at Christ’s parousia.” Question: “Was Muhammad sent from Allah?” Answer: “According to Islamic ­doctrine, Muhammad was a prophet divinely inspired to preach and ­confirm the monotheistic teachings of Allah.”

But the feature’s responsiveness was spotty. It fairly summarized Mormonism but didn’t pop up in response to the questions “Did Buddha achieve nirvana?” or “Who is Krishna?” It also didn’t respond to straightforward questions like “Who is the president of the United States?” or “Who shot Abraham Lincoln?”

DuckAssist seems to avoid summarizing controversial social or political information: It did not respond to my more than 30 queries about abortion, LGBT issues, or American politics.

With its reliance on Wikipedia, a crowd-sourced online encyclopedia, DuckAssist may not always have reliable information about recent events. For instance, the search “Who is Alex Murdaugh?” on March 14 returned a DuckAssist answer that the businessman was “accused of murdering his wife and son in June 2021 and is currently on trial in South Carolina”—but Murdaugh was actually convicted on March 2 and given two life sentences on March 3.

DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg wrote in the ­rollout announcement that there’s a ­difference between what generative AI “could do well in the future and what it can do well right now.” Right now, DuckAssist is more bullet point list than personable assistant. The company plans to improve the tool by adding more sources outside Wikipedia. Though currently available only on the DuckDuckGo browser, DuckAssist is slated to roll out soon to DuckDuckGo.com.

Elizabeth Russell

Elizabeth is a staff writer at WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College.


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