A ruler has twelve inches . . . Queen Elizabeth was a ruler . . . Queen Elizabeth was also a ship.

A recent Gmail ad shows the perils of assiciation. Here’s a genuine (slightly redacted) screenshot of the e-mail and the ad. Take a look at the topic and the resulting advertisement.

gmail

My colleagues and I were talking about a murder case (actually, about a blog post about a murder case). The term “electric chair” appeared nowhere in the conversation, though. However, I was shown an ad — one of Gmail’s famous, targeted ads — for cheap “electric chairs.” In this case, following the advertising link, motorized recliners and wheelchairs.

Murder does not associate directly with wheelchairs; this seems to be a case of two-step association. The obvious explanation is that I was shown this ad because Gmail’s AI ran two association checks, one right after the other. First, “They’re talking about murder. What terms go well with murder? Electric chair!” And second, “So, what do you do for someone who might be interested in electric chairs? I know — let’s offer him a motorized recliner!”

It’s comical, really — a little like a live version of the nonsense sequence I learned in grade school: A ruler has twelve inches . . . Queen Elizabeth was a ruler . . . Queen Elizabeth was also a ship . . . Ships sail in the sea . . . and so on. (The little sequence goes on to talk about fins and Finns, Russian and rushin, etc.) It’s an easy illustration of the principle: Just because A-associates-with-B and B-associates-with-C does not mean that A-associates-with-C.

A measuring-stick is not a ship, even if Queen Elizabeth is a ruler. Ships do have fins and Finns do fight Russians but that doesn’t mean that ships fight Russians; Finns fight Russians and fire engines are rushin’, but that doesn’t mean that Finns fight fire engines. (Does anyone else remember the little couplets?) And a discussion of murder does not mean that I’m interested in motorized recliners, thank you very much.

I sure hope that Homeland Security is doing a better job than Gmail at this whole “making associations” business.

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5 Responses

  1. greglas says:

    Hope springs eternal!

  2. steve lubet says:

    i don’t know the version you learned, but in my childhood it ended this way:

    . . . and that’s why firemen wear red suspenders (because they’re always rushin’ around)!

  3. former child says:

    Do you know why fire engines are red?

    Fire engines are the only thing that are red, books and magazines are read too. Two times two is for, and four times three is twelve. There are twelve inches in a ruler, Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, but Queen Elizabeth was also a ship. Ships sail in the sea, and fish also swim in the sea, and fish have fins. The Finns fought the Russians, who are also called reds. Since fire engines are always rushing, that’s why they’re red.

  4. John Armstrong says:

    Just because A-associates-with-B and B-associates-with-C does not mean that A-associates-with-C.

    So association is not associative?

  5. yclipse says:

    This is funny, but don’t take it too seriously. There will always be some misses.

    My spam filter is regularly accompanied by Google Ads for spam recipes. I haven’t yet written to protest that “it’s a different thing”.