So, Where’s My Robot?

Thoughts on Social Machine Learning

Amazon recommends

I recently had a couple of interesting encounters with recommendations that are a nice examples of where I think Socially Guided Machine Learning could come into play. Learning about how to get things done in dynamic human environments is a hard problem, and maybe the best way to solve it is to let people help.

I have always been really happy with Amazon’s recommendations, I think because until recently I only bought books there.  And their similarity metric for books and other such media works pretty well.   A couple of months ago I became a parent, and started buying several non-book purchases on Amazon.  And for many such purchases the similarity metric breaks down.

One example was diapers, right after I bought newborn diapers Amazon recommended that I buy diapers for toddlers.   The second example is pictured above.  I bought wooden letters to spell my son’s name, one of which was the letter “A” so amazon recommends “N.”  This one I found particularly amusing.  Imagine buying these wood letters at a store, and you pick up the letter “A” and a person comes over, “Oh, if you like the letter ‘A’ you’ll really love ‘N’ take my word for it!”

These two examples point out a hard problem with statistical machine learning.  Coming up with the right similarity metric is often an art, and in the case of the multitude of things that are available on Amazon it is hard to imagine a similarity metric that would work well across their whole site.  Sometimes their metric works and sometimes it doesn’t.  The reason I bought the letter “A” is not actually very similar to the reason that I might buy the letter “N.”  And the person that buys size 1 diapers is not actually that similar (in the timescale of minutes) to the person that will be buy size 4 diapers.  There is additional knowledge about the world that comes into play in making this decision.  And I think the interesting challenge for Socially Guided Machine Learning is to develop ways that people can help machines develop the right similarity metrics for decision making in various contexts.

Update: Another amusing email from, re the wooden letters…  They are trying hard to learn more!


July 8th, 2009 Posted by | Industry, Machine Learning | one comment

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