Algorithmic Bias

It’s easy to think machines have some kind of impartiality to them given they are, well, machines. But anything built by humans has a human inside it. Algorithms are no different, and just like us, they are filled with bias.

Algorithm – a word once confined to University mathematics departments and computer labs – now takes pride of place in every second tech news article, determines what you see online and why you received this email at 7am Australian Eastern Standard Time. So it pays to understand what they are, the impact they have and the biases they’re so often driven by.

So let’s go back to the start – what are algorithms in simple terms?

Algorithms 101 – An algorithm is a set of step by step instructions used to do something or make a decision.

With a definition this broad you can see that we humans use them everyday. Even sorting the laundry into darks, colours and whites, and washing them each separately is technically an algorithm. The steps to cook something (a recipe) is an algorithm. Where computers come in is that they can follow a very large number of steps, on a very large data set, and make decisions quickly and precisely. (In the clothing example above – the data set is the clothes and their colours, and the steps are where to sort each piece of clothing).

Algorithmic bias occurs when a computer system reflects the implicit values of the humans who are involved in coding, selecting and collating data to execute the algorithm. The emergent problem with the algorithms in big tech is that they’re designed to achieve corporate outcomes, not societal ones. Their values are simple: to make as much money as possible.

Algorithms now run so deep and cross-reference so much data that what we input has little to do with the outputs we receive. What we now have on the web is ‘the illusion of choice‘. It isn’t just our feeds on social forums which are decided by algorithms. Even what we search for is biased towards corporate algorithmic design parameters. Just search for anything on google you want to buy, in any category and the first bias is plain to see – it assumes you are after the cheapest version possible of every item: clothing, sneakers, airline tickets, hotel rooms, you name it. Apparently we all want to cheapest version of everything no matter what it is. Even if you put the word ‘high quality‘ before the primary search term you’ll still be guided by price. It’s not before we get very specific with words like expensive or search specific brands before we can find what we might need. Another in search is recency bias. Search will always show the latest version, or story of anything and anyone unless a clear time stamp is included.

When we look at social feeds – it’s clear that their algo-game is built on emotional leverage: birthdays, parties, engagements, births, deaths, family events and of course, controversy. These stimulate engagement and keep us on the site longer. Our desire to feel loved, important and often enraged are all that matter to them.

While these examples seem innocuous enough, the proliferation of an algorithm-based society is reinforcing many social biases such as gender, race, ethnicity and economic status to name a few. The canary in the coal mine is dead, the miners are still digging, and yet Silicon Valley are still making bank unfettered. So what should we do?

Like all technology, algorithms are neither good nor bad – they’re just tools. Tools that need to be civilised with some metaphorical workplace health and safety guide rails. They are here to stay, and so our best bet is to make them better. I see two paths forward:

  1. Change – We need to push for transparency on algorithms. Know what’s in them and have to ability to turn them off on demand. I don’t care if the algorithm owners are for-profit corporations – we can and should be able to regulate their output as much as we can a box of cornflakes. No company ever made a decision which reduced its profit until society made it so. It’s time we pushed for big tech to air their dirty laundry.
  2. Opportunity – We need to remember that every flaw in an industry, every broken promise or self-serving design leaves the door ajar for a nimble entrepreneur to make a more respectful version of the product we’ve got little choice on. Algorithm-based tech is no different. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the world is waiting for a social platform we can trust that isn’t designed around extracting unlimited hours and outrage from the people it’s supposed to serve.

Above all, we should never forget that capitalism works best when it is guided by society, not the other way around.

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It’s time for digital organics – Algorithms are the MSG of the modern age

Increasingly, our lives are shaped by secrets companies keep. The corporate secret de jour is algorithms.

These secret algorithms are designed to do two things:

  1. Make us like the product more.
  2. Improve the profit of the company via the algorithm.

(Objective 1 is only ever designed to facilitate objective 2.)

No doubt you’ve heard the word ‘algorithms‘ bandied around recently in the media, but unless you’re involved in tech or have had someone explain them to you, it is difficult to know what they are, what they do and why you should care. The definition coming straight at the top of a Google search is a pretty good one:

Algorithm: A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

For the most part, algorithms are a damn convenient tool during an era where the amount of data is literally exploding and we need shortcuts. By the way, an algorithm helped me find that definition too. From the screen print below, you can see the results of Google’s algorithms: a definition inside their search results, hence removing my need to leave Google and go to an online dictionary – aka a competitor.

Rule 101 for Algorithms is pretty simple. They are designed to benefit their creator. If they can serve the end customer too – well, that’s a bonus. The problem of course, is that the customer doesn’t know what they didn’t see and which decisions have been made for them. It’s hard to make an informed choice when the algorithms increasingly make those choices for us via filtered options.

A little over 6 months ago, I wrote about the fact that we will need to open up the black box of algorithms if we want to maintain a democratic society – yes, it’s that important. Before anything physical happens in our world, something informational always happens first.

A recent landmark federal court case in Australia focused on a poker machine called Dolphin Treasure whose manufacturer and casino operator have together been accused of misleading gamblers about their chances of winning. This is essentially algorithms on trial. It’s the start of something much bigger, and we can expect to see our most successful and revered technology companies algorithms on trial very soon. All it takes is a little more understanding by the public, and some front page news of algorithms gone wrong where there is blood on the floor – and sadly, it will happen. In many lower profile cases it has happened already.

Here’s what we can expect to see in the corporations around the world: C-suite level executives to emerge in order to build better algorithms and understand those in the market they need to deal with. Boards will need and put algorithm experts on their roster.

Here’s what we can expect to see from the Ambulance Chasers: Hidden algorithms to be the target of legal cases which deceive and cause financial or physical harm to consumers – a new angle to misleading and deceptive conduct.

Here’s what we ought expect from each other: To educate each other on the good, the bad and the ugly of algorithms so we can help shape a world we want to live in. Like we did with food and other suboptimal corporate behaviour patterns.

Here’s what I’d like to see from entrepreneurs: To launch services that benefits users sans algorithm as a key selling point or algorithmic ingredients on clear display – a new form of Digital Organics… to invent a new market and make the entrepreneurial profits they deserve by doing it.

What we need to remember is that every problem presents a new opportunity for nimble entrepreneurs. For business people who steer technology from its current trajectory to a new path is to say ‘no’, we want and deserve more than what you’ve giving us, and we are going to be the people who do it.

Check out my new book – The Lessons School Forgot – to redesign your own future.