Wikipedia states that an algorithm “is a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning.” Whether you are aware of it or not, algorithms are becoming a ubiquitous part of our lives.
We can see them at work in the world. We all know they are shaping outcomes all around us. But most of us have no idea what they are or how we are being influenced and manipulated. Algorithms are invisible pieces of code that tell a computer how to accomplish a specialised task.
Think of it as a recipe of an Indian curry. An algorithm tells the computer what to do in order to generate a certain outcome. Every time you Google something or go through your Twitter or a Facebook feed or use GPS navigation in your car, you are always interacting with an algorithm unknowingly.
Google Maps decides which way you should take to get office in the morning and return home in the evening or which way you take if there is a traffic jam. Matrimonial sites also use algorithms based on people’s profiles to search and show matches. When you are searching for a washing machine on your Amazon app, you can find the related item right next to your search results.
Algorithms on social media platforms
I have 2,019 Facebook friends and can hardly believe even 100 of them who actually view my post. Why not the rest? The danger with these algorithms is that they can affect our shopping habits, eating habits, shift power centres, division of society and unhappiness.
• Depending on your interests and what type of content you like, each social media platform will decide what should be shown on your timeline. So, your timeline is like your well (Like a frog in the well). Not the same whole world, these are social media sites whose well-being is made up of the illusion of the same world.
• You will have to advertise in order to reach your full capacity of your own friends list, forget the rest of the social media audiences.
• Social media platforms will push their content in the form of sponsored posts based on your searches.
Human vs machine driven economy
Algorithms are used in automation of many jobs, but they stand to take over many other careers, see the classic example of bots replacing customer support executives. Every time you design a system optimised for productivity or profitability, it dehumanises the workforce and when we remove humanity from a system where people are included, they become vulnerable.
With the rise of the algorithm, humans will be replaced by machines/computers for many jobs/tasks, and imagine how it impacts the humans? While experts continue to argue that the algorithms are not in control, people create and adjust them.
Checks and balances
Algorithms are exceptionally consistent. They are never tired, and they are undeniably precise. The problem is that algorithms don’t understand context or tone. They don’t understand emotions and empathy in the way humans do. Although algorithms are used globally and a few of them impact society, there is no legal recourse or official authority to hold a company responsible for the deeds of its algorithms.
Algorithms themselves are patentable objects. Many corporations choose to patent their algorithms, but patenting requires disclosing it and so lots of other corporations decide to protect their algorithms as trade secrets, which are basically just things you don’t tell anybody.
Public and governments are now beginning to realise the dangers and complexity of algorithms and therefore there is a need for proper checks and balances in the way algorithms are used.
(Stay Tuned to Cyber Talk Column on “ABCs of #hashtag” brought to you by Anil Rachamalla, End Now Foundation, www.endnowfoundation.org)
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