The automation revolution is well underway around the world and with it, some rather public and unfortunate growing pains. While some fear the surge in drones and others worry of losing their jobs to bots (or worse, their lives in a Terminator-like doomsday), another group of people were really upset some weeks ago about T-shirts. Specifically, an inadvertent computer error that led to a string of offensive phrases, such as “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot,” printed on T-shirts that were sold on Amazon. What started as a handful of poor reviews and some chastising blog posts for the shirts swelled into mass outcries against Solid Gold Bomb — the company that sells the shirts — and Amazon for selling them.
So how exactly did a bunch of offensive shirts get on Amazon in the first place?
Solid Gold Bomb used an algorithm (software that follows an automated step-by-step process) that combined words pulled from a few lists to generate thousands of catchy T-shirt phrases. These phrases were automatically loaded into a T-shirt manufacturer’s computers, and overlaid onto a T-shirt photo to produce images that are then displayed on Amazon. When someone places an order for a shirt on Amazon, the manufacturer’s computers are notified and the shirt is then printed, packaged, and shipped out.
In other words, once the word lists are built, almost the entire process is controlled by computers. Thousands of shirts manufactured daily with hardly anyone being involved in the work flow. It’s a truly amazing example of the possibilities that today’s automation can deliver and bears similarity to the approach of another Amazon seller named Philip Parker who is using computers to produce hundreds of thousands of books. At the same time, fewer eyes means the potential for something to slip through and that’s how the world ended up with ”Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” T-shirts (along with a bunch of related and equally offensive slogans).
The lesson here is automation empowers individuals, amplifying both their successes and their failures.
Solid Gold Bomb is a 5-year-old wholesale T-shirt company with a handful of employees originally founded in Australia that also serves the US and UK markets (according to Manta). Many of the T-shirts that are sold online are graphic tees usually depicting some kind of popular artwork or slogan and are sold for around $20 plus shipping. The company offers a boatload of different designs on Amazon (over 500,000 different items of clothing at one point).
As explained in an apology letter written by company founder Michael Fowler, about a year ago a line of T-shirts was created parodying the “Keep Calm And Carry On” meme that had grown in popularity. Fowler produced a cloud-based database from word lists (verb list, pronouns, and prepositions) and scripts that strung the lists together in every possible combination, which is somewhere in the millions of phrases. The master list of words was whittled down to about 700 by criteria that selected primarily for graphics that would make the words fit on the shirt. Finally, the phrases were laid out in a template and converted into image formats ready for screen printing.
Now, many of the T-shirts that are offered by the company through Amazon indicate that they are in stock, but warn of an additional 3-5 day processing time. That’s because the company doesn’t have a warehouse somewhere full of thousands of preprinted T-shirts and a crew of quality control inspectors to go over each product. Instead, it worked with a larger supplier that prints the shirts on demand as they are ordered by utilizing a database of uploaded image files. Then, the T-shirts are automatically packaged and shipped out to customers.
Because almost this entire T-shirt operation is automated, the company can sell T-shirts at a low price point and stay in business. Lots of companies around the world work in this exact way, and owners are always thinking about what other processes can be automated to lower their overhead even further. Things like cloud computing do just that.
In light of this, it is rather easy to see how the error might have slipped in. Somehow the verb “rape” survived the culling stages, perhaps because no one else but Fowler looked at the list and let’s face it, offensive language on T-shirts is not a new thing. Furthermore, one would not expect a small clothing wholesaler to have a full-time editor on staff who might speak up about words on the list or the combinations that could result. Perhaps Fowler missed the offensive words because of their position in the alphabet or maybe he only spot checked the list.
What really happened? No one will likely ever know. Though some online commenters believe it was intentional, his apology letter suggests it was accidental and appears professionally sincere (assuming Fowler doesn’t become a repeat offender).
Automating the slogan generation process is not dumb or irresponsible, but savvy in today’s world. Its basically a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, offering an enormous number of T-shirt designs may mean that only a few of each type are sold, but when that happens hundreds times a day, sales can be significant. On the other hand, a few designs will likely prove quite popular, so the more that are offered, the greater the probability of getting those high-selling winners. By all indications, Fowler built an international company on this strategy through an automation process that is now being called into question because a set of combinations turned out to be highly offensive.
T-shirts with these slogans is clearly regrettable and pulling the line was absolutely the right move (it should go without saying that rape is heinous and promoting it on a T-shirt is scraping the bottom of the IQ barrel). However, when it comes to algorithms and the future of artificial intelligence, we can all take a lesson from this incident that will serve us well: embrace the reality of automation and realize this will happen again and again, in one form or the other.
Why are we doomed to be offended again? Because computers have no way of knowing what upsets people unless they are programmed to and that’s a tall order, especially when the responsibility falls on a single person to ensure that computers understand.
While this all could have been a simple mistake, Solid Gold Bomb may never recover, even with the entire “Keep Calm” line of clothes removed. The current Amazon reviews for other, nonoffensive T-shirts that the company lists now have a slew of negative comments blasting Fowler for profiting off of hate speech against women. Hopefully, the company now has a second set of eyes looking over the automatically generated lists.
Whether this particular situation blows over in a few months or the company will soon meet a dismal end (which seems likely) is not really going to stop this from happening again.
Perhaps in a future world, algorithms will be programmed to be personally attuned, culturally sensitive, socially accommodating, and politically correct, but until then, humans appear to be the best at getting offended. At least there’s one job that won’t be replaced quickly.