Algorithms are set of steps and instructions that can be provided to the computer for performing a specific task. In our mind, we use an algorithm to plan our day according to our needs and availabilities. Similarly, Google maps uses its route finding algorithm to show us how we can reach from Florida to Washington DC while avoiding tolls and traffic. The algorithms play a critical role in performing our mundane daily tasks such as cooking (O’Neil, 2016) to performing some of the most complex tasks like NASA’s algorithms for rearranging the solar panels on the International space stations. The simple animated video below is designed for kids and to give them a visual understanding of how algorithms can be used for performing tasks. I found this video really interesting as it shows the basic function of the algorithms in simplest terms.
When I think of algorithms, I think of Robert Merton’s manifest and latent functions. The digital algorithms in modern times were developed to provide computers with a set of instructions for performing basic calculations. With the development in technology, the algorithms were being used broadly for different computer programs, which have benefited us in advancing our technologies. However, that brings me to the question of Robert Merton’s concept of dysfunction, which is an unintended consequence of any particular function. Do algorithms cause any dysfunction in our modern societies? The answer to that question is yes. Cathy O’Neil (2016) describes how algorithms can be responsible for causing inequality and discrimination in society. She provides an example of Predpol software, a predictive crime data tool which provides law enforcement officers with a predictive map of where crime could occur next. O’Neil (2016) describes that the algorithm behind Predpol generates predictive data on the basis of previous police practices. Consequently, making the Predpol data subjective to human bias. O’Neil (2016) states that predictive crime systems have been more helpful than random patrolling in neighborhoods, however, the poor and minorities who were routinely stopped for unreasonable searches and the seizures are now part of that police data on which the algorithm is developed. This has unevenly affected the poor and minorities as software systems are pointing them for predictive crime occurrence. O’Neil (2016) states “PredPol, even with the best intentions, empowers police departments to zero in on the poor, stopping more of them, arresting a portion of those, and sending a subgroup to prison”.
Similarly, an application called SketchFactor was accused of discrimination and racism in 2015. The application was developed with an intention to help urban walkers to choose neighborhoods they can walk through safely, however, its implications were discriminatory and racist. The application would allow users to report if they have experienced or seen anything “sketchy” in any particular neighborhood. Later, their reports would show up on application’s maps to show which neighborhoods are safe and unsafe to walk through. However, the application was clearly based on user’s bias and perception, making most Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods unsafe to visit or walk on the map. After backlash from the public, the application was later discontinued.
In recent times, the algorithms are also used for targeting consumers with specific advertisements; analyzing which defendant would re-offend and which one gets paroled; who gets hired and who gets fired. The algorithms decide what we see on our Facebook feed, what we watch on Netflix, what we buy on Amazon, and which restaurant we should try for dinner. Algorithms are such a crucial part of our lives that one would think how did we even live without algorithms in our lives before? It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the algorithms are influencing how we live our lives, or is it just my imagination? With so many technological advances, the algorithms are taking over our lives, and they are definitely beneficial to our existence in the society. However, with new advances such as utilizing facial recognition for surveillance, I wonder if we are really safe in the world of algorithms.
O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Crown.
Rumpus Animation (2015, July 08). BBC Learning – What Is An Algorithm. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Da5TOXCwLSg&t=5s
Seeker Network (2015, March 21). Is Big Data Racist?. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkwzQ4ABtKI