A Wise Guess

GAVIN POTTER IS NEITHER a computer scientist nor a programmer. Yet Potter is the front-runner in one of the hottest computer programming contests of recent times.

The contest was organized by online movie rental company Netflix. The company has a technology, called Cinematch, that helps customers find good flicks. How? Netflix uses fancy algorithmic gymnastics to match a customer’s previous selections against thousands of other possible films. (Netflix calls this “straightforward statistical linear modeling, with a lot of data conditioning.”)1 Netflix can even recommend the perfect “movie for two,” something that, considering the Venus-Mars tastes of many couples, should be considered a minor miracle.

But Cinematch has ...

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