You can almost hear the techies scrambling back to their drawing boards after an article in today’s New York Times shined a popular spotlight on problems with online recommendation systems. Of course, typical of a Times technology piece, they offer up extreme examples that make it seem like the whole system is broken:
But spewing out recommendations is not entirely without risk. Earlier this month, Walmart.com issued a public apology and took down its entire cross-selling recommendation system when customers who looked at a boxed set of movies that included “Martin Luther King: I Have a Dream” and “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” were told they might also appreciate a “Planet of the Apes” DVD collection, as well as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and other irrelevant titles.
Spotlighting the quirks of technology is reminiscent of the “My Tivo Thinks I’m Gay” stories that circulated last year.
To their credit, the Times did point out efforts to close the technology intelligence gap, such as Liveplasma.com (which is experiencing its own technology gap from all the attention — I couldn’t get it to load).
Reactions to this article will probably divide along the usual fault lines, with some arguing that technology will yet find a way to close the gap, and others arguing that there’s no substitute for human intelligence, especially when it comes to summer reading lists.
Sitting on the fence as usual, I’ll ask this question:
Is there a way that humans and technology can better collaborate to help consumers navigate a dizzying world of choice?
Imagine a team of avid reviewers (movies, music, books, etc.) working through an application that scours Amazon, iTunes and the like for interesting cross-recommendations that they might never have considered — these reviewers then apply their own human intelligence to create killer “product bundles” that act as a one-stop shop. These product “remixers” would have every advantage of technology (e.g. the ability to process enormous quantities of data) and every advantage of human intelligence (e.g. the ability to override results that make no sense).
I still trust people more than technology (although some days I’m not sure why), but I appreciate the ability of technology to overcome human limitations.
Why can’t we have the best of both worlds?