Google's Secret AI Cleans Up YouTube Homepage
YouTube is littered with extreme and misleading videos, and the company has been criticized for not doing enough to limit the dreck, according to Bloomberg. But one place the Google unit has managed to clean up is YouTube’s homepage.
Behind the scenes, Google has deployed AI software that analyzes reams of video footage without human help, deciphers troubling clips and blocks them from the homepage and home screen of the app. It’s internal name is the "trashy video classifier," according to three people familiar with the project. The system, which has not been reported before, plays a key role in attracting and keeping viewers on YouTube’s homepage, building a foundation for a flurry of new advertising coming to the video service.
Google tested the classifier as early as 2015, but deployed it broadly after a series of ugly incidents with children’s videos in 2017, according to a former YouTube staffer. One episode, dubbed "Elsagate," featured popular videos showing the Disney princess in a variety of untoward situations. That year, YouTube also faced a torrent of advertiser boycotts over inappropriate videos that threatened to dent sales.
A Google spokeswoman confirmed the company has a classifier that screens videos for the YouTube homepage as well as the "watch next" panels that recommend other clips. The system analyzes feedback from users who report videos that are misleading, clickbait-y and sensational. It also taps other data on audience retention, likes and dislikes.
This shows YouTube is capable of regulating the spread of troubling content. However, current and former employees say the company has only seriously focused on the problem when money is at stake, or, in the case of terrorist content, when outside pressure has forced it to act. The trashy video classifier was, in part, driven by financial incentives.
The company doesn’t share YouTube financials, but RBC Capital Markets estimates the video service generated more than $20 billion in sales last year. Improvements to the homepage audience and new ways of showing them ads could generate billions of extra dollars in revenue.