It’s Time to Rethink the Algorithm

When there is a disconnect between the intentions of their creator and the recipient, when algorithms go awry, they can have disastrous consequences.

200,000 years of human evolution, in which we discovered fire and invented the wheel, have brought us to the next frontier: what Wikipedia calls “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations.”

It doesn’t sound especially exciting, but algorithms have shaken up the world of computing. Of course, they have always been there under the hood–algorithms are simply the rules that govern how our software operates behind the scenes.

But now the algorithm is stepping out from behind the curtain. More and more of the services we use depend on it. Take your Amazon recommendations, for example. A recommendation algorithm mines your browsing and buying history to serve products you just have to buy. We all love the gods of logic for it.

But for all of the benefits logic-driven services bestow on us, there is also a dark side. When there is a disconnect between the intentions of their creator and the recipient, when algorithms go awry, they can have disastrous consequences.

Facing pressure over claimed political ideologies of its news promotion, Facebook axed its entire human editorial staff, replacing the presentation with an algorithmically driven agenda, designed to mix top trends with individualize relevance.

Algorithms, unfortunately, can’t identify fake news stories as effectively as humans can. Shortly after, the platform was rife with fatuous stories, more partisan and deceitful than anything the editorial team had been accused of.

This double-edged sword wasn’t just suffered by the world of journalism, but by the advertising industry, as well. If you ever searched online for a pair of rain boots, bought them offline and found those boots following you around the web weeks after purchase, you have been the victim of a “retargeting” algorithm, which wastes advertiser dollars and hurts your user experience.

Algorithms’ creators are well-meaning enough. But, as with all technology, it is the human design behind them that can help them soar or sink.

Research shows that people learn when they question what’s going on around them, when they are able to assimilate from a broad set of available circumstances and experiences. But digital information that is served narrowly, based only on what computers think we want to read, serves no one.

At the heart of this algorithmania is an obsession with dataism–a rapid and calculating exploitation of the digital breadcrumb trail we lay as we go, and a growing belief that this trail offers everything technologists need to serve back attractive services and products.

But it doesn’t. What’s becoming clear to me and many others in the industry is that algorithms only get us so far. We need something else to be present in the decisions about what we see, what we consume, what we buy and how we grow.

We don’t go to see art exhibits painted by the hands of robots. We don’t rock out at concerts played by central processing units. For sure, algorithmic and generative art exists, and much of it is great. But on the whole, when it comes to matters of the human condition as revealed through cultural expression, we prefer to seek edification from other warm bodies.

Cultural products made by humans using technology are the perfect symbiosis, and I think that is the model to which we now need to return.

It is time to rethink algorithms, to put a driver back at the wheel of decision-making. Our routines of logic have proven themselves amazing deliverers of a subset of services and destructive miscreants when it comes to vital others.

Now they need help. Algorithms alone should not dictate user experience. When crafting software in the future, developers should more carefully consider their own logical deficiencies, acknowledge that they can’t pre-program the world and accept a helping hand from the rest of us.

Gene Richardson is chief operating officer of Experts Exchange, a network and online community for technology professionals.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.