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Technology

Want to Know Which Electronics Suck? Ask Your Computer.

A new program mines user reviews to create the ultimate computer-generated critique.

By Bryn NelsonSeptember 7, 2008 5:00 AM

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Too many opinions and not enough time? A start-up called Pluribo.com, launched in June, mines many hundreds of conflicting online reviews of Amazon’s electronic products and delivers its own computer-generated judgments in pithy prose. The site’s two- to four-sentence summaries can be quirky—for instance, the software says it has “scruples” with a particular hard drive—but its grammar often beats that of the human reviewers.

Pluribo requires as few as 10 reviews for its natural-language algorithm to kick in, and pop-up boxes expand to display a sort of “hot or not” meter, along with partial quotes about a product’s key characteristics, such as color, cost, and sound. Not even best sellers are immune from the site’s terse put-downs. For one heavily reviewed version of the iPod that was earning four stars overall, Pluribo yawned, “A ho-hum product.”

Teaching Pluribo to speak colloquial English hasn’t been easy. An early beta version of the service, which reviewed all of Amazon’s retail products using attributes usually reserved for electronics, had this to say about socks: “Users love the interface.” Cofounder Ken Reisman promises to expand Pluribo beyond the electronics category without praising baby wipes for their storage capacity. Eventually he hopes to have Pluribo serving up hotel, restaurant, and even book reviews via mobile applications, culling the entire Internet for the last word on War and Peace. Or perhaps two: “Too long.”

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