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Algorithms Can Be Lousy Fortunetellers

Slate, May 4, 2015



Two weeks ago, a new app called Crystal—which is billed as a tool to improve professional communication—would have told a potential employer that I am “a quick learner with strong analytical, creative, and social skills, but may seem scatter-brained, forgetful, and/or sarcastic.”


This week, though, I’m “pragmatic, independent, and need logical reasons for everything—but [am] able to take a calculated risk when necessary.”


What changed? I have absolutely no idea.


According to its website, Crystal “analyzes public data to tell you how you can expect any given person to behave, how he or she wants to be spoken to, and perhaps more importantly, what you can expect your relationship to be like.” Say you want to pitch a brilliant idea to a client’s latest hire. Simply plug his name into Crystal’s search box or just pull up his LinkedIn profile and click a Chrome extension called Crystal for LinkedIn. The app analyzes that page and other publicly available information on the Internet to come up with a personality profile including a one-sentence summary and tips on how to speak, email, work with, and sell to him. Another extension, Crystal for Gmail, will also suggest the words, phrases, style, and tone that match his communication style and can even predict how two people will work together. Instead of a formal introduction and opening pleasantries, Crystal might suggest you “[g]et right to the bottom line,” or use casual phrases and abbreviations. It also lists several things that do or do not “come naturally” to the person you’re profiling, like “prioritiz[ing] innovation and excitement above stability and security” or “say[ing] something bluntly that accidentally offends someone.” It offers tips like “[d]on’t trust that he will follow specific verbal instructions.” Reporters at Business Insider and the Next Web have been impressed with its accuracy, though it’s worth nothing that bloggers provide Crystal with much more information to work with than average users.

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