human error

When we first heard that Wal-Mart’s Web site had recommended a film about Martin Luther King Jr. to potential buyers of a “Planet of the Apes” DVD, we rolled our eyes, wondering which automated recommendation technology was at fault.

Walmart.com is the Silicon Valley (Brisbane) online shopping arm of Wal-Mart, and we assumed they must have outsourced their recommendation technology to a specialized service that somehow made the shocking blunder.

But no. Word is, human error is to blame for the offensive link (free registration). The mistake resulted from a well-intentioned effort ot promote a DVD about the black leader, said Carter Cast, president of Walmart.com. A business manager had grouped the MLK movie with three other-black themed movies and assigned the package an overly broad category of DVD boxed sets, Cast said.

Huh? We don’t quite follow that reasoning, but if…

you insist…

Anyway, there are all kinds of tech companies out there, especially in the music industry, that recommend things that are similar the item you are watching, or listening to. Algorithms have been known to make embarrassing mistakes. Remember when Google placed a suitcase ad beside a sordid news story about a body that was chopped up in a suitcase? But contrary to our initial fears about the drawbacks of technology, the Walmart.com blunder may suggest technology may trump humans after all. Walmart.com may want to search for a Silicon Valley start-up that does this sort of movie recommendation automatically — without input from biased humans. This is where tagging would help. Can anyone suggest a good one?