The mass media continues to gloss over the imprecision of machines/algorithms.
Here is another example I came across the other day. In conversation, the name Martin Van Buren popped up. I was curious about this eighth President of the United States.
What caught my eye in the following Google search result (right panel) is his height:
Mr. Van Buren was very short, only 5 feet tall. I was about to spin a story about defying the conventional wisdom that the success of men is correlated with height (Wikipedia's entry on human height even has a sub-section on its correlations with occupational success).
Then a noise in my head led me to click on the White House link. And the first thing on Van Buren's biography concerns his height.
Except the White House website tells readers he was 5 feet 6 inches. Those 6 inches are a world of difference!
I'm assuming the White House number is official, and the machines at Google got it wrong (same mistake at Yahoo! and Bing; you wonder what source they are all using, or just copying each other). Not sure why these search engines ignore what would seem to be the authoritative source.
This calls for machines fact-checking machines. How to make that happen?
The error is not trivial! The standard deviation of height in U.S. males is about 3 inches according to Wikipedia. An error of 6 inches is two times the standard deviation. The range spanned by two standard deviations around the average covers two-thirds of U.S. men!
Wikipedia also advises that human growth hormone treatment is recommended for anyone whose height is 2.25 times or more below the population average so the machines thought Mr. Van Buren should be thus treated.