Google Bard’s Gothic Hallucinations

Yesterday I asked Google Bard the kind of question I’ve often wanted to ask a search engine.

Imagine you are a professor preparing a graduate seminar on 18th- and 19th-Century British Gothic Literature,” I instructed the machine. “What materials would you place on the syllabus, including a combination of primary texts and secondary criticism and interpretation, and how would you group them?”

This is a complex question, but the solution—as I understand it—should just be a series of search queries in which the most appropriate results are mapped into the LLM matrix to produce the output. Because Google is the market leader in search, and I’m not asking Bard to display its “personality” like Bing/Sydney (the “horniest” chatbot, as The Vergecast would have it), I thought this would be an ideal task for Bard.

Boy, was I wrong. Here is the syllabus Google Bard produced.*

On first glance, this looks like a valid, if unoriginal, syllabus. Bard has identified some representative primary texts matching the query and has chosen to present them chronologically, rather than thematically. That is a sane choice. And those texts actually exist.

Now let’s look at the secondary literature Bard wants students to grapple with. Bard has selected the following texts:

  • David Punter, The Gothic Imagination: A Critical History of Gothic Fiction from 1764 to the
    Present Day
  • Anne Williams, Gothic Literature (1994)
  • Stephen D. Gosling, Gothic Literature: A Cultural History (2000)
  • William Veeder, Gothic Fiction: A Critical Introduction (2005)
  • David Skidmore, Gothic Literature (2013)
  • Andrew James Smillie, Gothic Literature (2017)

“I would… group the secondary criticism and interpretation chronologically,” Bard says, “starting with Punter’s The Gothic Imagination, the first comprehensive critical history of Gothic fiction, and ending with Smillie’s Gothic Literature, the most recent critical history of the genre.” That sounds good, but none of these texts exist. Not one. Google Bard made up every one of the texts on this list, and several of the people listed there as well.

David Punter is, indeed, a scholar of gothic literature, but as far as I can tell has never produced a text entitled The Gothic Imagination: A Critical History of Gothic Fiction from 1764 to the Present Day. Anne Williams is Professor emeritus in the English department at UGA, but I cannot find an overview by Williams published in 1994 (though Art of Darkness:  A Poetics of Gothic, published in 1995, sounds fascinating). I can find no gothic scholar named Stephen D. Gosling, and obviously no cultural history Gosling may have authored. William Veeder was a professor at U. Chicago but never wrote Gothic Fiction: a Critical Introduction. And so on. None of these books exist.

Make of this what you will. I don’t think Bing or ChatGPT would do much better at this task right now, but it is only a matter of time until they will be able to deliver accurate results. In the meantime, the machine is confidently hallucinating. Caveat emptor.

Of course, I did ask Bard to “imagine” it is a professor. Maybe it took me too literally and “imagined” a bunch of books that would be great for graduate students to read. Perhaps I should have told Bard it is a professor and insisted that it deliver only real results.

There’s always next time.

* To be fair, Google warned me twice that this would happen.