A Robotic Pricing Arms Race

Over fruit flies, of all things:

Amazingly, when I reloaded the page the next day, both priced had gone UP! Each was now nearly $2.8 million. And whereas previously the prices were $400,000 apart, they were now within $5,000 of each other. Now I was intrigued, and I started to follow the page incessantly. By the end of the day the higher priced copy had gone up again. This time to $3,536,675.57. And now a pattern was emerging.

As far as “computers run amok” stories go, this one is pretty purely enjoyable. I can’t see any weird ethical quandries about pricing bots on Amazon, since they essentially just let the natural bartering of the used-books marketplace happen on a larger scale, and in the end we get a cheaper book.

But the completely unchecked lack of proportion is a bit worrying in the long-term; one hopes that we’ll find a more reliable “Don’t be crazy” algorithm before we start applying these kinds of methods to other determinations, like health care or, oh, missile launches. It’s reassuring to know that we humans aren’t quite obsolete yet, even though we might be lazy enough to trust our machines more than we should.

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