With a little insight, we can use the algorithms in our world to improve life for everyone! They aren’t just for computer scientists anymore. Understanding the basics doesn’t have to be scary or boring. In fact, if we start to understand them we can help reshape the future!
Algorithms control a lot of outcomes in our lives, so not understanding what an algorithm is, or what it does, is a bit like not knowing that gravity exists. We might walk off a lot of cliffs if we fail to appreciate and work with the limitations gravity creates. The same is true of algorithms!
Perhaps you have a vague notion of what algorithms are or what they do but for most of us, the understanding of algorithms is hazy at best. Yet, they run a considerable part of our world. So, perhaps it’s time we demystify them and the role they play in our lives.
What Does an Algorithm Do, Anyway?
At its core, an algorithm is simply a way of problem-solving; it works as a shortcut. Algorithms are a way to efficiently process information around us to get what we want or need.
You don’t need a computer to do them. Our brains are constantly running little algorithms. Maybe you are hungry and want to eat. So, you take in the information of what’s close by for fast food, or what you have in your fridge, and then you add what time of day it is, and decide what and how much to eat. Or perhaps you want to know what to wear. You check the temperature, whether it will rain, and your activities for the day and pick an outfit.
We are constantly using mental algorithms to make life easier!
To do that we set rules for how we process the data we have to make things more efficient. We know that we have a certain preference for food and how much money we have to spend, so that becomes part of the rules we use in our algorithm to pick lunch. We know that we like to wear pants over dresses and so we add that to the rules that help us pick an outfit.
There are all sorts of tiny preferences and rules we automatically build into the algorithms we run in our own brains. The same thing is happening in our Google searches and social media.
When you ask Google a question or log on to your Facebook. Algorithms are working behind the scenes to take all the data that’s out there and give you your desired outcome; your Google results or your closest friend’s latest post. But, with a Google search of your Facebook feed, we really don’t get to select the set of rules that go into our outcomes.
This is where unintended problems start to happen.
What happens when our algorithms select the news we see and we completely miss what others are seeing? Or what if they start to affect the way we hire people or the posts we scroll through?
The incredible thought leader Cathy O’Neil is an amazing communicator, thought leader, and mathematician, and she is taking a close look at our world’s algorithms. Her work is remarkably enlightening, helping us understand the role algorithms play in our lives, and what we can do to make them work better for all of us!
Here’s an animated piece from her talk with the RSA…
Can Algorithms Prove It’s Still an Amazing World?
Let’s get back to that gravity metaphor. Admittedly, it’s not perfect, but they are both ever-present forces in our lives. As kids, we knew that if we threw a ball it would go up and come right back down. We didn’t really get that gravity was behind this, but we got that this was the way the world worked. Now, as adults, we’ve learned about gravity, and know not to park our car downhill without the parking brake on. Or for the more advanced, we can use our knowledge of gravity to slingshot a spacecraft far into the outreaches of our solar system.
Algorithms work with a similar kind of omnipresence in our lives. They’re everywhere! From Google searches to your Facebook feed. But in order to appreciate how they can cause problems or can be more helpful, we first have to understand how they work.
Here’s the deal: algorithms do control a lot of what we see and experience. They are there to make it so we don’t have to scroll through endless posts to get the ones we like. Many algorithms are built to try to learn how to make our lives easier—giving us fewer choices to deal with, filtering posts we won’t like, and handing us recommendations from past purchases.
When it all goes right, we can be more informed consumers.
But for algorithms to serve humanity and the future well, we can’t passively float along without understanding how they shape our world.
If you think of your click as your vote, then you can deliberately tell an algorithm give me more of “this” or “that”. And the converse is also true: don’t click on anything you don’t want to see more of, no matter how curious you are. Some part of that algorithm is trained to give you more of what it thinks you want. How does it do that? Very often by looking at what you clicked on last. You can see how this can easily start to reshape the media you consume.
Have a certain political viewpoint? You’ll probably start to see more posts on that particular viewpoint and it’s no wonder your uncle thinks your opposing political opinion is a little crazy. You two probably never see the same information.
You can see how these algorithms, meant to give you “more of what you want” can start creating echo chambers.
“Humans are quite bad at a lot of things. We’re bad at being consistent. We’re bad at being unbiased. We get tired and sloppy.
Algorithms posses none of those flaws. They’re incredibly consistent. They never get tired, and they’re absolutely precise. The problem is that algorithms don’t understand context or nuance. They don’t understand emotion and empathy in the way that humans do.” 2— Hannah Fry, Mathematician, Author of Hello World: Being Human in a World of Algorithms
Right now algorithms do control a lot of our world. But the more we know about them, the more we know how they’re acting out there.
The first step in not being overwhelmed. And the second is asking companies to take a look at their algorithms. In order to do this, we have to understand them enough to have an intelligent conversation about them.
We can’t ask for change or know that there is something that needs changing if we don’t understand it. Nor can we have reasonable conversations to ask for things to change without a basic understanding of things.
We don’t need an algorithm free future. But we can start to confront our own, very human, biases as we code and create it. Companies like the one Cathy O’Neil founded are now out there to help companies audit their algorithms and make sure they are working better for everybody!
The more we understand the complexities of the world, the less we have to fear.
When we take time to learn about what we are afraid of, the easier it is to have the conversations necessary to change those fears.
It’s up to us to decide how we want to move ahead.
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
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- RSA. “The Truth about Algorithms | Cathy O’Neil.” YouTube, 17 Oct. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=heQzqX35c9A&t=3s. Accessed 23 Aug. 2022. ↩
- Illing, Sean. “How Algorithms Are Controlling Your Life.” Vox, Vox, 1 Oct. 2018, www.vox.com/technology/2018/10/1/17882340/how-algorithms-control-your-life-hannah-fry. Accessed 16 July 2019. ↩