Living with the algorithms

They are watching you

I’ve been struck recently by how much of our life is influenced, even controlled, by algorithms.

If you found his post through a search engine then you were only shown this post because an algorithm aligned my writing with your search terms. We trust these search algorithms so much that we rarely go to the second page of a set of results – our viewpoint of governed what we read and what we read is governed by the search algorithm. There’s a whole industry of people seeking to manipulate the results of the search algorithm to try to appear at the top of the list. Sometimes this is done with good intent, at other times it’s more malicious.

Facebook is fundamentally an algorithm. You don’t see every bit of content that your friends create, the Facebook algorithm decides for you. As you like things, reply to posts, unfollow people you are tuning the algorithm to your preferences. You are also tuning the corresponding advertising algorithm so that it knows what to try to sell you.

Twitter is a bit lighter on algorithms. At the top of your twitter feed are the last few tweets by people you follow in time order, but go a bit further down and you’re likely to come across a tweet that is an advert which is being shown to you because an algorithm decided you might like to see it. A bit further down and you’ll find a bar that says while you were away. The tweets that are shown below this bar have been chosen by an algorithm. Click or tap on Follow people and another algorithm will tell you who you might like to follow. The reason some malicious organisations reach out and follow lots of people is to try to manipulate this algorithm.

While you are tapping into your phone another algorithm is deciding what you’ve just typed – automatically correcting (or mangling) it for you.

Algorithms are looking through all of our email to try to decide which are SPAM or harmful.

Deep inside the computing device that you are using is another algorithm that is deciding how to manage the memory.

Algorithms aren’t limited to the on-line world though. Take any extended drive and the signalling that you’ve been presented is governed by an algorithm. Near my house there are multiple sets of traffic lights the scheduling of which is integrated together to give the best traffic flow (or at least that’s the theory).

The satnav system that you use to get you home is also using a set of algorithms to decide the best route and how to reroute you around traffic.

Flight scheduling is primarily done by algorithm; the price of the tickets is generated by another algorithm.

The algorithms that pollsters used to predict the last General Election result in the UK were forecasting a completely different result to the real outcome. Recent studies how highlighted where the algorithms need to be enhanced if they are going to get it right in the future.

The playlist used by most radio stations is based on an algorithm. The songs are then compressed and transmitted over the air using another algorithm.

Weather forecasters use massively complicated algorithms so that we can know that it’s going to rain again tomorrow.

The engine management system in your car has a whole set of algorithms which you can often manipulate to give you better economy or better performance.

If you go to the bank and ask for a loan, their answer to that question will be based on the output from an algorithm. The cost of your insurance policy is defined by an algorithm.

Look on Wikipedia at the list of algorithms and be amazed by its length.

Imagine what would happen if some of these algorithms started misbehaving or had to be turned off.

A number of people have experienced the impact of a misconfigured algorithm in their satnav and ended up in a river or down a dirt track. What would happen, though, if it was more significant than that? What would happen if all the algorithms went on strike? In the wrong hand the search algorithm could be made to manipulate the viewpoint of whole populations. Imagine being able to completely surprise a political viewpoint counter to your own?

Facebook used its algorithms in an experiment on people’s emotions. They were rightly criticised for this, but how do we know this kind of thing isn’t happening every day? For organisations like Facebook and Google the algorithm is the most closely guarded of all corporate assets because it is so valuable. I’m not wanting to scaremonger, I’m just pondering whether we have the right levels of controls in place for us to be confident that we aren’t being manipulated.

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