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Wal-Mart's racial offense was human error, not computer

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?

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I may be slightly biased (being the CEO) but CleverSet (http://www.cleverset.com) could solve this problem. As a Seattle (sorry, not based in Silicon Valley) based company, we provide recommendations based on each individual customers online behavior. While some of the larger companies depend on collaborative filtering which is focused on matching products (and people), CleverSet's technology understands and predicts what each customer is looking for during the current online session and makes personalized recommendations based on customer behavior.

Todd Humphrey on January 9, 2006 10:48 AM
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I worked for the company for 25yrs. and I know that they are racist. I was overlooked for numerous promotions because I was a black female. The bad part about this is, I was told so by the District Manager, Sammy Sappington.
Thank God for sites such as this to help the ones that feel as if they are against a brick wal-mart.

Laverne Jones on January 11, 2006 12:27 PM
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I know well about their health ins., I paid into the short and long term disability ins. for 20 yrs. but when the time came for me to use it I was denied any benefits and had to go on social security disability. The Hartford company was their company at the time. Every person that applied for the disability ins. was denied. they never failed to deduct the premiums every two weeks,but never told us that it was all in vain. We had to find that out the hard way.

Laverne Jones on January 11, 2006 12:33 PM
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