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The New York Times reports that Amazon has said that it is “reviewing” its site after media reports in the UK that its “frequently bought together” algorithm was actually suggesting bomb-making ingredients.

“The news report is the latest example of a technology company drawing criticism for an apparently faulty algorithm,” the Times writes. “Google and Facebook have come under fire for allowing advertisers to direct ads to users who searched for, or expressed interest in, racist sentiments and hate speech. Growing awareness of these automated systems has been accompanied by calls for tech firms to take more responsibility for the contents on their sites.”

The British are particularly sensitive to this issue, the story says, because “authorities are investigating a terrorist attack last week on London’s Underground subway system. The attack involved a crude explosive in a bucket inside a plastic bag, and detonated on a train during the morning rush.” However, this is not just a UK issue. The Times writes that it “found that similar algorithms may be at work in the United States.

“In one instance, a search for magnesium ribbon — a product that can be used to make a crude fuse — yielded a suggestion for two powders that explode when mixed together in the right proportions and then ignited. A second search yielded a suggestion for two out of three ingredients necessary to make gunpowder.”
KC's View:
That’s the thing about an algorithm - it does the math, but it doesn’t have a heart, nor common sense. I think Amazon’s only mistake here is saying it is “reviewing” the situation. (Sounds like Fagin from “Oliver!”) What they ought to have said is that they’re changing the algorithm immediately, and working on a fix so it doesn’t happen again.

Stuff like this cannot be dealt with hesitantly. You gotta be firm and fast.