What is an algorithm? Is it math? They are increasingly running the world.
I don’t remember algorithms being covered in my schooling, such as in math classes, back in the early seventies, but the subject must have come up. We did do a little computer work. In the last few years though, I have learned some important points about them. Algorithms determine most of what we experience through the Technojungle Internet through content filtering. These algorithms impact our real world in serious ways. Somebody has to create the algorithm, so that means they always have biases, are not impartial, and can be discriminating. Increasingly, they create each person’s perspective of their world through relentless attempts to personalize what information they are fed from the Internet. Because algorithms use information known about you, they create a requirement for more data and information collection. Instead of actually serving the humans using the Internet, they end up serving Technojungle corporations. Algorithms are secrets. Nobody outside of the people in corporations employing particular algorithms know anything about how they work. They are quite simply curating the view of the world you see through the Internet. I wouldn’t argue that they control and manipulate our lives—even our beliefs, values, feelings—in subtle and hidden ways we can hardly imagine and that make them dangerous.
Just what exactly is an algorithm and how are they used? In solving problems or making calculations, algorithms provide a process through rules and guidelines. The modern Technojungle computer machines use rules for establishing processes in problem-solving procedures to attain goals. Do you get all possible matches when you do a search using a search engine on the Internet? The search engine uses algorithms, plus whatever information can be determined about you, to return what it thinks you want to see and possibly what is being promoted in the list.
Every Technojungle computer has a program to run it and perform tasks. Programs are groups of instructions and these instructions are algorithms. You could say that a recipe for making a cake is an algorithm. If the instructions of the recipe are followed, the result will always be a cake. Contents of the recipe can be varied to yield different kinds of cakes.
Social media, online stores, just about everything you find on the Internet Technojungle uses algorithms. When social media shows you people you might know, or a store shows you other items you might be interested in, or a music service recommends other music you might like, they are all using several algorithms along with data and information about you. Can you think of other instances where you can recognize algorithms are at work in the Technojungle? If you can’t think of any, just go to a website and watch carefully what happens. Even in displaying the page, the website and your computer have to figure out just how to fit everything on your screen, so there is an algorithm involved. For every situation you can see an algorithm might be at work somewhere in the background, there are probably dozens more situations you don’t realize algorithms may be in use.
Artificial Intelligence relies on algorithms. In fact, AI uses algorithms to learn by using a sort of automated reasoning and machine learning. If you have never considered the importance of algorithms, then it is time to realize that algorithms run and rule the Technojungle world we live in.
The book Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil discusses the impacts of algorithms on our social structure.
Algorithms have a number of problems with a major one being bias. One controversial use of algorithms is in predictive policing to identify potential criminal activity. Somebody had to write the algorithm containing the rules to predict crimes. Racial biases can easily enter the mix, as can a number of other elements, such as neighbourhood and country of a person’s origin. Can you think of other biases that might be built into predictive policing algorithms? What other situations can you think of where algorithms might be used and biases could cause serious problems in the Technojungle?
Algorithms are hidden from us. Since they are hidden and nobody can actually see them, they don’t seem to be under any regulatory control. Since we don’t see or understand them and they remain unmonitored, nobody can question the design and use of them. Another serious problem is that algorithms can grow. Developers keep adding more instructions making algorithms more complex and repurposing them for other Technojungle tasks. I wonder if the biases keep growing too.
If I imagine, with the cake recipe, that there is a problem with some aspect of the recipe, perhaps too much sugar. As the cake recipe gets more elaborate the problem can have a more serious impact. If the recipe is used to create other recipes, the problem can spread—everything gets an unhealthy amount of sugar which can then cause various other problems.
Since algorithms are initially written by humans, they must inherit preexisting human biases. With algorithms so prevalent in the computer Technojungle that controls our everyday activities, humans are at risk of experiencing ever more negative impacts of biases. I wonder what can happen when negative impacts become amplified through algorithms used in combination with AI, Big Data and The Internet of Things? Can human problems and biases built into algorithms be somehow purged to produce a perfect system? Or, will they remain lurking in the background also becoming amplified as algorithms grow in complexity and then spread throughout the Technojungle? What happens when AI uses machine learning to develop algorithms based on the ones humans developed? I see plenty of question to be asked.
How can we learn to recognize the impacts of Technojungle algorithms on our society? Can you think about some fields and areas of your society, such as insurance, taxation, etc., where algorithms could have negative biases? What about algorithms with intentional maliciousness built in? Do algorithms keep your data and information private? More questions.
Algorithms are used to automate a lot of tasks in the Technojungle that could be far too difficult for humans, such as sifting through massive amounts of data and information. As mentioned in the previous chapter, this is data mining in Big Data. The algorithms can find patterns and make predictions, but they lack common sense and reasoning, ethics, morals and they have biases.
Suppose you want to sift through a huge amount of data collected about people to find possible terrorists. You could use various parameters in your algorithm, however that might introduce some biases similar to above in predictive policing. You could set your search to be narrow in scope, but you could miss some possible terrorists. If you set your search too wide, you identify too many innocent people. No Technojungle algorithm is going to be perfect. It’s like catching fish with a net. Make the spaces, or webbing, too large and you miss some good fish. Make the net webbing too small and you catch too much.
There are varieties of algorithms for accomplishing particular types tasks. Most can be scaled up for larger tasks. Do you think a cake recipe could be scaled up to build a house? That would likely take a different sort of algorithm.
There have always been various methods to make a recording of music a hit a few decades ago. I know one was to go to all the major radio stations and do a favour for the disc jockey. In the online Technojungle, with algorithms in charge of displaying popular music to listeners, I figure the algorithm simply needs a step to accept input as to which recordings to push to the public.
From search engines to social media websites, such as for dating, or computers used in financial sectors, we make decisions based on information returned to us by algorithms and algorithms run Technojungle computers used in the most important areas of our lives. However, we now understand that no algorithm is perfect. If algorithms are not perfect, what outcomes could we be experiencing?
Sometimes I feel our world so full of far too much of just about everything that we can’t manage to sort through all the options to make our own decisions. Can you see the need for algorithms in helping us manage our decisions? As you safari through the Technojungle, ask why you are seeing certain information?
Our lives are so dependant on the computers and Internet of the Technojungle that it is difficult to imagine life without them. We also rely on algorithms. Once hidden in the depths of computer science and software development, the algorithm has become something we all need to be aware of.
While the use of algorithms will certainly grow as more data and information is collected about us, I think it is unlikely we will see notices telling us that, “Your newsfeed is curated by algorithms, no humans were involved.” Do you want to know and understand when and how an algorithm was used in a particular situation? Technojungle algorithms replace expensive humans and the errors they make, however, algorithms can have their own problems, such as bias. Algorithms make money for those people who apply them.
I often forget to ask myself, “Why I am seeing this information?” except, I truly wonder when I see women’s clothing following me around the online Technojungle places I visit. Perhaps because I try not to leave a definite trail, the Internet algorithms figure I may be my wife who does leave a more distinct trail than I do. I can easily get caught up watching videos and forget to ask, “Where am I being led?” Down the garden path, or jungle path, I suspect. I’m just trying to learn about being a better human being and living in the Technojungle.
Whether you have heard of algorithms or not, hopefully you now have a basic understanding of what they are and how important they are in your life. Using algorithms, our machines are getting smarter, but how? How smart can they get?