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Monday, March 09, 2015

Invasion of the algorithms: The modern-day equations which can rule our lives

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Rhodri Marsden writes, "Equations raise as many questions as they claim to answer."

This is a miracle of modern technology," says dating-agency proprietor Sid Bliss, played by Sid James, in the 1970 comedy film Carry On Loving. “All we do is feed the information into the computer here, and after a few minutes the lady suitable comes out there,” he continues, pointing to a slot.

These are equations which, by processing huge amounts of micro-data, can predict our behaviour - but are they for better or worse? Photo: The Independent 

There’s the predictable joke about the slot being too small, but Sid’s client is mightily impressed by this nascent display of computer power. He has faith in the process, and is willing to surrender meekly to whatever choices the machine makes. The payoff is that the computer is merely a facade; on the other side of the wall, Sid’s wife (played by Hattie Jacques) is processing the information using her own, very human methods, and bunging a vaguely suitable match back through the slot. 
The clients, however, don’t know this. They think it’s brilliant.

Technology has come a long way since Sid James delivered filthy laughs into a camera lens, but our capacity to be impressed by computer processes we know next to nothing about remains enormous. All that’s changed is the language: it’s now the word “algorithm” that makes us raise our eyebrows appreciatively and go “oooh”. It’s a guaranteed way of grabbing our attention: generate some findings, attribute them to an algorithm, and watch the media and the public lap them up.

“Apothic Red Wine creates a unique algorithm to reveal the ‘dark side’ of the nation’s personas,” read a typical press release that plopped into hundreds of email inboxes recently; Yahoo, the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and others pounced upon it and uncritically passed on the findings. The level of scientific rigour behind Apothic’s study was anyone’s guess – but that didn’t matter because the study was powered by an algorithm, so it must be true.

Statue of Al-Khwarizmi, the 9th century mathematician (Melvyn Longhurst / Alamy)

The next time we’re about to be superficially impressed by the unveiling of a “special algorithm”, it’s worth remembering that our lives have been ruled by them since the year dot and we generate plenty ourselves every day. Named after the eminent Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, algorithms are merely sets of instructions for how to achieve something; your gran’s chocolate-cake recipe could fall just as much into the algorithm category as any computer program. And while they’re meant to define sequences of operations very precisely and solve problems very efficiently, they come with no guarantees. There are brilliant algorithms and there are appalling algorithms; they could easily be riddled with flawed reasoning and churn out results that raise as many questions as they claim to answer.
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Source: The Independent 


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