Computation And The Illusion of Being Cared For
March 20, 2016

Mysterious title to this blog post...

Last year I created some code to take the Netflix movie recommendations on my account and my wife's account and combine our projected ratings for the movies. Then I sorted the list.

For some time now, I've enjoyed this type of strategy for helping people decide on shared things, whether it be a baby name, or a movie. It seems to work pretty well!

After watching a couple of movies taken from this list recently, I was quite smitten with the result. In both cases, the movies were ones I probably never would have picked off of the shelf, and yet we really did enjoy watching them.

After yet more reflection, I think I've realized that part of what made the end result so nice is that it almost felt like we had hired a person to sift through a bunch of facts about who we are, what our values are, the kind of things that delight us, and then that person went off and spent a few days looking through movies, trying to find ones that would be a perfect fit for the two of us.

Of course, that didn't happen. It was just computer code at Netflix -- lots of machine learning / modeling techniques, and then a simple match rank algorithm to combine Meredith's and my recommendations.

This makes me curious about the future: How often will people feel "cared for" in a sense when in fact it's just algorithms optimizing their lives. Maybe I'm unusual, but in reflecting on this, I actually did feel kind of cared for after watching those two movies. It felt like someone was looking out for me, being thoughtful, on my behalf.