Algorithms are instructions for solving a problem or completing a task. Recipes are algorithms, as are math equations. Computer code is algorithmic. The internet runs on algorithms and all online searching is accomplished through them. Email knows where to go thanks to algorithms. Smartphone apps are nothing but algorithms. Computer and video games are algorithmic storytelling. Online dating and book-recommendation and travel websites would not function without algorithms. GPS mapping systems get people from point A to point B via algorithms. Artificial intelligence (AI) is naught but algorithms. The material people see on social media is brought to them by algorithms. In fact, everything people see and do on the web is a product of algorithms. Every time someone sorts a column in a spreadsheet, algorithms are at play, and most financial transactions today are accomplished by algorithms. Algorithms help gadgets respond to voice commands, recognize faces, sort photos and build and drive cars. Hacking, cyberattacks and cryptographic code-breaking exploit algorithms. Self-learning and self-programming algorithms are now emerging, so it is possible that in the future algorithms will write many if not most algorithms.
Algorithms are often elegant and incredibly useful tools used to accomplish tasks. They are mostly invisible aids, augmenting human lives in increasingly incredible ways. However, sometimes the application of algorithms created with good intentions leads to unintended consequences. Recent news items tie to these concerns:
- The British pound dropped 6.1% in value in seconds on Oct. 7, 2016, partly because of currency trades triggered by algorithms.
- Microsoft engineers created a Twitter bot named “Tay” this past spring in an attempt to chat with Millennials by responding to their prompts, but within hours it was spouting racist, sexist, Holocaust-denying tweets based on algorithms that had it “learning” how to respond to others based on what was tweeted at it.
- Facebook tried to create a feature to highlight Trending Topics from around the site in people’s feeds. First, it had a team of humans edit the feature, but controversy erupted when some accused the platform of being biased against conservatives. So, Facebook then turned the job over to algorithms only to find that they could not discern real news from fake news.
- Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, pointed out that predictive analytics based on algorithms tend to punish the poor, using algorithmic hiring practices as an example.
- Well-intentioned algorithms can be sabotaged by bad actors. An internet slowdown swept the East Coast of the U.S. on Oct. 21, 2016, after hackers bombarded Dyn DNS, an internet traffic handler, with information that overloaded its circuits, ushering in a new era of internet attacks powered by internet-connected devices. This after internet security expert Bruce Schneier warned in September that “Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet.” And the abuse of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm and general promulgation of fake news online became controversial as the 2016 U.S. presidential election proceeded.
- Researcher Andrew Tutt called for an “FDA for Algorithms,” noting, “The rise of increasingly complex algorithms calls for critical thought about how to best prevent, deter and compensate for the harms that they cause …. Algorithmic regulation will require federal uniformity, expert judgment, political independence and pre-market review to prevent – without stifling innovation – the introduction of unacceptably dangerous algorithms into the market.”
- The White House released two reports in October 2016 detailing the advance of algorithms and artificial intelligence and plans to address issues tied to it, and it issued a December report outlining some of the potential effects of AI-driven automation on the U.S. job market and economy.
- On January 17, 2017, the Future of Life Institute published a list of 23 Principles for Beneficial Artificial Intelligence, created by a gathering of concerned researchers at a conference at Asimolar, in Pacific Grove, California. The more than 1,600 signatories included Steven Hawking, Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil and hundreds of the world’s foremost AI researchers.
From Pew Research Center
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