NYC’s business chatbot is reportedly doling out ‘dangerously inaccurate’ information

An investigation by The Markup found the chatbot sometimes gets city policies wrong in its responses.

REUTERS / Reuters

An AI chatbot released by the New York City government to help business owners access pertinent information has been spouting falsehoods, at times even misinforming users about actions that are against the law, according to a report from The Markup. The report, which was co-published with the local nonprofit newsrooms Documented and The City, includes numerous examples of inaccuracies in the chatbot’s responses to questions relating to housing policies, workers’ rights and other topics.

Mayor Adams’ administration introduced the chatbot in October as an addition to the MyCity portal, which launched in March 2023 as “a one-stop shop for city services and benefits.” The chatbot, powered by Microsoft’s Azure AI, is aimed at current and aspiring business owners, and was billed as a source of “actionable and trusted information” that comes directly from the city government’s sites. But it is a pilot program, and a disclaimer on the website notes that it “may occasionally produce incorrect, harmful or biased content.”

In The Markup’s tests, the chatbot repeatedly provided incorrect information. In response to the question, “Can I make my store cashless?”, for example, it replied, “Yes, you can make your store cashless in New York City” — despite the fact that New York City banned cashless stores in 2020. The report shows the chatbot also responded incorrectly about whether employers can take their workers’ tips, whether landlords have to accept section 8 vouchers or tenants on rental assistance, and whether businesses have to inform staff of scheduling changes. A housing policy expert that spoke to The Markup called the chatbot “dangerously inaccurate” at its worst.

The city has indicated that the chatbot is still a work in progress. In a statement to Engadget, Leslie Brown, a spokesperson for the NYC Office of Technology and Innovation, said, “In line with the city’s key principles of reliability and transparency around AI, the site informs users the clearly marked pilot beta product should only be used for business-related content, tells users there are potential risks, and encourages them via disclaimer to both double-check its responses with the provided links and not use them as a substitute for professional advice.”

“The site has already provided thousands of people with timely, accurate answers and offers a feedback option to help drive continuous improvements of the beta tool,” Brown said. “We will continue to focus on upgrading this tool so that we can better support small businesses across the city.”

Update, March 31 2024, 9:23AM ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from the NYC Office of Technology and Innovation.