Monday 6 July 2015

On the Divinity of Recommender Systems

Knowledge is limited and knowledge is power. To be omniscient then, typically one is granted a position in the realm of gods, philosophers or psychics. There's a caveat though that the friend who might know a lot about beer and Xena, Warrior Princess isn't also included in this category − to be divine, the knowledge must be about humans, since humans are created in the divine image.

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are − Jean Brillat-Savarin
When an angel appeared to Mary, prophesying the surprise that she would have a baby and that Joseph was to take the role of father, it has resounding similarities to the girl who was sent product recommendations for nappies from Target before she even knew she was pregnant. The angry father must have been worried not just about the insinuations about his daughter, but the immense cognitive power of this store. He just thought of them as the place where he buys junk, not as the mirror into his soul.

People turn to their religion for guidance, but recommender systems can go one step further: they can anticipate not just the answer to the question, but the question itself. The thought of seeking guidance therefore never arises and recommender systems can supplant religion. They could choose the right TV for you before you even thought that you should buy a TV. They could suggest a suitable white-noise generator before you even knew it was a thing and before your biased-noise sleep gave you nightmares featuring angels and God's too-little, too-late recommendations.

Tacky watches, blunts and adult DVDs − recommendations that anger users and gods?

All religious views including atheism regard divine interactions as often subtle and this subtlety is typically characterised as a way of testing one’s faith. It is here that recommenders can have the most influence over religion: recommenders allow themselves to be very blunt. “I think you should buy a fire alarm” barely compares to a vague hint like seeing a nun drop a packet of matches. The gratitude for the recommendation will strengthen the user’s love of the shopping service and deny the gratitude from being granted to the divine power. One might suggest that perhaps people would attribute divine influence over the recommender, but in practice, divine powers are not credited with influencing anything computer-related. Computational thought is characterised by thieving poker machines or crash-prone Windows computers and God doesn't want to touch those. God is only credited with healing people and appearing on toast; any technological marvels are “magic”.

Recommender systems choose new items for users based on their previous purchases and hence, their current inventory. Giving up all one’s earthly possessions and leaving nothing for comparison would mean that the recommender is unable to understand the user anymore and would be unable to make recommendations. Users therefore have a choice − they don't have to let recommender systems supplant their god. Buddhism, Christianity and probably some other religions advocate living in poverty. Is this because God knew about how powerful the recommender systems could become?