Every once in a while something comes out of a lab that not only isn't self-serving, it could actually be dangerous to some of the top executives in a company. Dispute Finder, an offering out of Intel, has implications that go far beyond technology and could create controversy on issues ranging from social structures such as polygamy, politics and religion to the perceptions surrounding its parent.
This is a big thought in a market that has recently been accused of not having them very often, and it could be transformational if some protected group that doesn't want open discussion on a topic doesn't get it shut down. Whether the result is good or bad depends on us, and I'm not particularly optimistic.
Dispute Finder: Informed Discussions
Dispute Finder presents arguments against a position. Its stated purpose is to keep users from being duped but, like most tools, it can be used to dupe them as well. Automatically and in a wiki-like fashion, it collects positions and then aggregates information either opposing or in agreement with that position -- something that could be really painful in the hands of some employees or children I know. It then ranks the positions, topics, and top users so you can see what the topics are, what is being argued, and who is most active.
Swine Flu Example: The Opportunity
On the topic of the swine flu, people are afraid to travel and companies, parents, and government institutions are struggling to decide with what to do. Using the tool on the claim that "the swine flu was over hyped," you get both opposing and supporting evidence.
On opposing: "The death toll from swine flu rose to 149 people in Mexico," with this supporting link. This is followed by a piece on "Parmegeddon-Bad Science," which argues that the risk is real even if the massive deaths don't materialize. It kind of reminded me of Y2K where folks thought the risk was overhyped, yet it was the massive amount of work that went in to prevent date-related problems that kept Y2K from becoming a disaster. In effect, when done properly and reviewed by someone with an open mind, you get arguments on both sides and are better able to make an informed decision.
Gay Marriage Example: The Danger
Let's take the topic of gay marriage, something that is being hard fought in my state at the moment. You get mail from someone who believes gay marriages should be legalized and you turn to Dispute Finder, which gives you back the counter argument: "Marriage was intended for the procreation and to populate the earth. Homosexual couples cannot procreate or populate If it was meant for men to be with men and women to be with women, this earth could not populate". This is from a site called "Stop Gay Marriage!"
Typically there would be an argument in support of legalizing gay marriage (and given this tool is out of Berkeley, I figure this will be fixed quickly), but while you quickly get a strong argument against the position, the supporting side hasn't been posted as of this writing. With this you see the danger, because it could make it look like Intel was supporting only one side of this battle. Due to the limits of technology, there will likely often be incredibly hard-fought topics that initially will have only one side argued or well argued.
When you combine passionate people and what appears to be an unfair response to what they are passionate about, the result could be painful.
I could use this tool a lot myself once it matures. While I applaud this effort and hope that it is successful, I wonder if Intel is avoiding a fatal flaw in the way people are typically wired. In general, we like to be secure in our beliefs and don't seek out things that challenge them. Rather than causing people to become more informed as intended, the tool could instead more deeply entrench some of them in their beliefs.
In the end, however, if we are unable to see the truth in things, we likely will eventually fail as a race anyway. Giving people who want to see both sides and make their own decisions tools to do that, regardless of the limitations of some, is a noble effort. Check it out if you get a chance. It is young and lightly populated, but it is also a rather fascinating concept. I hope the idea of exploring both sides of issues catches on.