Action Alert!

Altered Algorithms for Choice

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 20, 2006

Amazon.com found itself in big trouble with abortion advocates, because when visitors logged on an searched under "abortion," the web site queried whether they might be interested in "adoption."

"I thought it was offensive," said the Rev. James Lewis [a spokesman for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.] "It represented an editorial position on their part."

It wasn't. No editorial function-- in fact, no human action at all-- was involved. The Amazon computer is programmed to notice correlations. A lot of people who searched under "abortion" did, indeed, also search under "adoption." So the computer helpfully began suggesting that connection.

You can't say that the computer "chose" to ask about adoption, because computers don't really make choices. The "adoption" suggestion was the end result of an algorithm. The Amazon search engine had made a complicated series of dry, mathematical calculations, reflecting the choices made by thousands of users-- many of whom were, no doubt, women facing unexpected pregnancies.

Under pressure from the abortion lobby, Amazon has altered the terms of the search, and the "adoption" suggestion no longer pops up in response to an "abortion" query. This is another victory for the people who describe themselves as "pro-choice," while doing their best to restrict the "choices" of which women-- and, now, even computers-- are aware.

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