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The Correlation Between Automation and Decline in Common Sense

Posted on September 24, 2009 by Trevor

As a developer, I'm always looking for ways to make people's jobs easier. If I can automate a repetitive task in order to help us get more done, that's usually great, but every once in a while it can come back to bite you.  There is a point when automation can lead to the detriment of basic logic.

healthBase is a sort of health-oriented search engine. It's powered by a technology called NetBase that combs the web for information, flagging and extracting relevant information based on the semantics of a sentence. Sounds good, right? You can look up treatments for a headache,  or pros and cons of Tylenol. You can see it's not perfect, but it does seem to have the right idea.

However, while healthBase's search algorithm seems acceptable, they unfortunately forgot or didn’t have the resources to put any sort of filtering on the results. This can produce some hilarious misapplications. Want to know what treatments there are for Obama? They've got that covered. How about the causes of rap? Or the pros and cons of vampires? Feel free to experiment yourself; these are some of the tamest results.

We can all laugh at those results. But what about when people are actually searching the site for medical advice and the wrong results are returned? What if someone is searching for treatments for Appendicitis, for example, for which immediate surgery is the only proven treatment? HealthBase returns a whole list of treatments (including things like licorice!), which could lull a reader into thinking surgery is only one of several options. Or how about the pros and cons of suicide, at the top of which is listed "provide relief"? While it's true that you can click the "+" button next to a phrase and read the scrap of text from which it's extracted (often entirely out of context), the fact remains that the lists themselves are in some cases dangerously misleading.  I mean they can use the “Beta” excuse but that will only last for so long.

There are two key differences between an automatic process and a human: the automatic process is much faster and easier, but a human has common sense. Both need to be taken into account when considering automating part of your business. If you do decide to automate something, be sure to test and test again, and the more vital the application is, the greater the depth and breadth of your testing needs to be. At Gordian Project, we try to balance automation for speed and convenience with a human element for sanity and a personal touch.  Surely no one here, which I know of, promotes Nazis, but surprisingly healthBase managed to find a whole list of pros:


Pros and Cons of Nazis according to HealthBase

 

 


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