PRODUCTHEAD: The good, the bad and the ugly of machine learning

PRODUCTHEAD: The good, the bad and the ugly of machine learning

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

paranoid product manager


Machine learning is the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed

Netflix and the BBFC automate age certifications for content with a staff-trained algorithm

YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has the unintended consequence of creating echo chambers

An algorithm widely used in US courts for predicting future criminality exhibits racial bias

Filmmaker Shalini Kantayya explores the impact of biased facial recognition algorithms on human rights


In 2004, I attempted to build an automated system to help me identify the prospective customers most likely to want to buy my products.

It relied on being able to link an individual’s different activities together, such as viewing product pages on our website, downloading a trial version, or contacting us in some way. It would then assign scores for those activities.

Crucially, I also wanted it to use a Bayesian algorithm, much like the one I used to filter my email spam, to gradually learn to boost the scores of the combination of activities that usually would result in a product sale.

Needless to say, I failed. (Otherwise I suspect my career would have gone in a somewhat different direction.)

While my ambition was unbounded, my technical skills and the technologies I knew how to use had more practical limits.

These days, we are not so limited. AmazonGoogle and Microsoft all offer machine learning as a service, with low barriers to entry for users in terms of both price and required domain experience.

Access to technologies with this power bring with it an inevitable ethical responsibility, as I’ve discussed before. You can even now do a Master’s degree in the responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI).

So this week, I’ve pulled together some articles for you on the good, the bad and the ugly of machine learning.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

Machine learning versus AI: what’s the difference?

AI is a branch of computer science attempting to build machines capable of intelligent behaviour, while machine learning is the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed.

You need AI researchers to build the smart machines, but you need machine learning experts to make them truly intelligent.

They’re related, but not quite the same thing


The good: predicting how a protein folds

Proteins fold up into complex three-dimensional arrangements, which in turn determine how proteins change its function.

Until now, predicting the folding arrangement has been a computational challenge that has resisted the efforts of biologists for decades, even with supercomputers at their disposal.

After training, DeepMind’s AlphaFold could deliver results in a matter of days, rather than the several years needed to examine proteins by hand, and averaged an accuracy of 92/100.

Solving complex problems in days not years


The good: adding age ratings to Netflix

Netflix has labelled all of its content with a UK age rating generated by an algorithm.

The technology was developed with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which classifies films in cinemas.

Netflix staff watched its entire catalogue, tagging sex scenes, depictions of violence and swear words, then fed this data into the algorithm.

A filter for age-inappropriate content


Product Management Coaching

Whether you’re new to product management or have been a product manager for years, a coaching session can help you to step up your career.

We’ve coached people wanting to get into product management, product people with nobody in their organisation to manage them, and experienced product managers preparing to apply for a promotion.

A proportion of the fees from every coaching session is donated to charity. Contact us if you’re interested in finding out more.

The bad: a toxic feedback loop

Guillaume Chaslot used to work on YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. He describes how their goal to increase the amount of time people spent on YouTube had unintended — but not unpredictable — consequences.

A deliberate echo chamber


The ugly: bias in facial recognition

Modern society sits at the intersection of two crucial questions: What does it mean when artificial intelligence increasingly governs our liberties? And what are the consequences for the people AI is biased against?

CODED BIAS explores the fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s discovery that facial recognition does not see dark-skinned faces accurately, and her journey to push for the first-ever legislation in the U.S. to govern against bias in the algorithms that impact us all.

Watch the award-winning documentary


recent posts

Good product management

Perhaps we’ve been caught a little off-guard by the implications of these new technologies. These have presented product managers with yet another new challenge to add to the growing list: how to create products that are not only successful but also ethical.

Be more human


The dirty little secrets of decision making

As individuals, we’re continually evaluating options and taking decisions. As product managers, we have the additional responsibility to balance the often competing needs of users, the business and wider ethical considerations. What makes one decision better than another?

How to make better decisions


Manage the whole product

A product is often a complex combination of several products and services. Some you create yourself, some are created by others. You’re responsible for the whole lot, even if they’re not all directly in your control.

What do Google, Tesla and Apple have in common with the Michelin Guide?


What lessons from antiquity would you apply to product management?

Hi Jock,

So this this might seem a bit odd, but are there any lessons from antiquity given your background in Classics that one might apply to product management in the year 2020?

Best regards,


Seeking meaning to 2020 from ancient Greece


upcoming talks and events

5th May 2021, 16:00 GMT


Online product management round table discussion (topic TBC)


can we help you?

Product People is a product management services company. We can help you through consultancy, training and coaching. Just contact us if you need our help!

Product People Limited logo

Helping people build better products, more successfully, since 2012.

PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from the ashes of failed food delivery startups.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *