I've got a hunch you may not like Hunch

Web-based decision-making tools like Bing and Hunch are suddenly all the rage. Whatever happened to making up our own minds?

In the future, we won't have to make any decisions on our own. All we'll need is a browser and a lot of time on our hands. That's where things seem to be headed, at least.

[ InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely declares, in the Google-Bing wars, the fear stops here | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

First, of course, there is Bing, which if nothing else has stuffed the term "decision engine" down our gullets whether we wanted it there or not. Now comes Hunch.com. Built by Flickr's Caterina Fake and a bunch of computer geeks from MIT, Hunch apparently exists to help us figure out what we already know, even if we don't know we know it yet. From the site's description:

It's a cruel world out there. Coin-flipping, I Ching consultation, closing your eyes and jumping, postponing the inevitable, Rock-Paper-Scissors, and asking your sister are all time-honored means of coming to a decision -- and yet we think there's room for one more: Hunch.

In 10 questions or less, Hunch will offer you a great solution to your problem, concern or dilemma, on hundreds of topics. Hunch's answers are based on the collective knowledge of the entire Hunch community, narrowed down to people like you, or just enough like you that you might be mistaken for each other in a dark room. Hunch is designed so that every time it's used, it learns something new. That means Hunch's hunches are always getting better.

OK, I thought, I'll bite.

Hunch starts by asking an endless series of nosy questions trying to find out more about you. (I got through 238 of them before I gave up, exhausted.) The questions range from the mundane (Do you live in a city? Do you rent or own your home?) to the bizarre (Do you sing in the shower? Have you ever used a fake ID?) to the truly bizarre (Do you believe in alien abductions? Do you find clowns scary?)

For the record: Of course I believe in alien abductions, and I think anyone who doesn't find clowns scary is either a) related to Ronald McDonald, or b) scary. As for the rest, well, it's none of your beeswax.

For all this hard work, Hunch tells me I've earned 559 Banjos. And no, I do not have one friggin' clue what that means, so please don't ask.

Apparently Hunch uses this information to group you with other folks who answered the same way. Later, when you ask Hunch a question (Should I marry this person? Should I eat Chinese food for lunch? Why are we born to suffer and die?) it will weight responses from this group higher, assuming they also asked these questions.

Does your head hurt yet? Because mine does. Reading the site's FAQ is only slightly more illuminating. Ultimately it all comes down to "Trust us, we're from MIT and a lot smarter than you."

In actual practice, though, Hunch isn't really all that smart. In fact, in some cases it seems to have gotten hit upside the head with a stupid stick.

Ask Hunch "Should I get a divorce," for example, and the first thing Hunch will ask you is "Are you married?" Answer "No," and it continues on with another question. (Houston, I think we have a problem.) Answer "Yes," and it will run through another seven or eight questions, then provide you with an answer, as well as the percentage of like-minded people who answered the same way. Ask it what you should have for lunch, and it will guide you through a similar series of questions, then provide you with four options.

When the answer involves a product (like, What running shoes should I buy?) Hunch might link you to an external site selling that product, which is how it makes its money.

The problems? The answers aren't exactly rocket science. Unless you have zero friends, you're likely to get as good (and probably better) advice from an actual human. Worse, you can't just type any question into Hunch and get an answer. You either have to pick from questions someone has already submitted or create a new one from scratch -- tediously, step by step, question by question. And if you already know the answer ... you don't need to ask the question in the first place, do you?

The other problem is what Hunch could do with all that bizarre-yet-highly-personal information it has gathered about users' alien abduction theories and clown preferences. The company says it won't share this info with any other humans, and I believe it. But if in a year or two Hunch goes down the toilet, that data may be its only real tangible asset. The temptation to sell it could be overwhelming. And then? The next thing you know Kang and Kodos will be knocking on your door, looking to run a few tests.

If enough people ever use it, Hunch might one day provide moderately useful insight into the (alleged) wisdom of crowds around a particular topic. At this point in time, though, Hunch is really more of a massive experiment in machine learning -- and we're the guinea pigs.

Meanwhile, it's lunch time. Gee, I wonder what there is to eat....

Would you rely on a Web site to help you make big (or even little) decisions? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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