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The Power of Numbers: How do algorithms control our daily lives?
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By Ehab Khalifa

Do you know that most of your acquired priorities, perceptions, and beliefs, are formulated through algorithms? Whether or not you believe in this notion, it happens. Algorithms determine discussion trends, affect public opinion directions, and formulate human and machine consciousness. This happens every time you use search engines, social media, e-retail, GPS, and driverless cars.

Algorithms determine what results should appear and what should disappear, what results come first and what come later, what friends can be suggested for you and what pages you may be interested in? They also affect your purchasing decisions through online advertisement systems and your local routes through suggesting a road map for your destination. And if you have a google car, they will take all the decisions instead of you.

Actually, algorithms study you very well, know more about you than yourself, and can take decisions for you. So, how do algorithms work? How can they shape our ideas and priorities? And how do they control most of our lives? This is what this article seeks to answer.

What is an algorithm?

Algorithms were created by Abu Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, in the ninth century, whose famous work was translated from Arabic to Latin as "Algoritmi de Nemero Indriun".  Al-Khwarizmi’s work was further developed by various scientists in the modern age until the use of algorithms became the main computing language.

Simply put, algorithms are the road map or manual that explain how specific and clear missions can be accomplished, the methodology required to solve problems depending on a set of mental and mathematical steps, achieve by taking certain inputs to give certain outputs that assist  in taking a decision or making a judgment[1].

Every individual uses algorithms in their daily life to solve problems and take decisions, this also applies to computer tasks. Through the use of algorithms, computers can solve the most difficult and complicated tasks in just a few seconds. So, how does this occur?

For a computer to complete a task, one must write a program, then defines the steps the computer has to take to reach the required results. In this regard, one can also specify how to accomplish said mission, and the exact order of mission steps, this is fundamentally what an algorithm is.

 

To illustrate, to obtain a set of values that gives number 9, this could be a sum of (8+1) or (1+3+5) or (1+2+3+3). There are many different methods that give you the same result, which is 9, and you can choose which method you will adopt. The best algorithm is the one that gives you the correct answer in the shortest time.

Therefore, the speed of an algorithm is one of the most important factors for determining the efficiency of an algorithm. Speed efficiency depends on many factors including the number of inputs. The more inputs, the more time consuming the algorithm.

Furthermore, the data used also determines the efficiency of the algorithm. Whether the data was previously sorted or randomly generated can determine the efficiency of the algorithm due to the reduced or increased number of data inputs. [2]

Algorithms control your daily life:

If an individual uses a computer and internet, they will use many algorithms that prioritize interests, and affect perceptions and decisions. This occurs each time an individual uses the internet. The following are some examples of how algorithms can prioritize, classify, associate, and filter information for a user:

  • Search engines:

Search engines, like Google, are complicated algorithms that answer trillions of queries each day.

Usually, algorithms for search engines consider many standards for the results like the newest and recent content, the results relevancy to the search topic, the intellectual property rights, the terminology used, and the geographic location. Google uses more than 200 elements for its search engine, and it also uses algorithms that can predict what an individual will type.[3]

Here, a search engine can prioritize an individual’s interest according to a results' pattern. So, if an individual searches for the "Presidential elections in the USA", the search engine provides the results that recommend one candidate over the other, or can show the first page results news of one candidate followed by other candidates, which can affect a user’s perception, at least for a while.

The same applies to online shopping. If an individual is searching for a "laptop" on the internet, the search engine can recommend a specific trademark or specific website to buy from. Here, the search engine affects your purchase decision.

 

  • Destination, GPS Mapping:

If an individual would like to reach a destination, they will use the GPS on their mobile phone device. The way an algorithm functions is that it suggests different road maps to reach said destination via car, public transport or walking, with an accurate time to reach the destination.

Here, the algorithm suggests you different road maps, starting from the nearest to the longest, and by logic, you will choose the nearest road for your destination, although this road may not be the safest one, and it's dangerous to walk through, but you will take your decision depending on the algorithm suggestion. So, shall road maps algorithms tell us in the future which road is safe to walk and which one is not?

  • Suggest news, videos, and friends:

If you are using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any social media, you can feel how these platforms suggest friends, news, and videos that meet your expectations. This is how the algorithm works, it takes many inputs like your current place, accommodation, school or university, and work, then starts suggesting friends that you may know, or at least you are interested to know.

The same happens in news feed, the algorithm tries to understand which type of pages or news you are interested in, depending on your "likes" and "comments", and starts suggesting other pages and newsfeed that meets you.

By the same way, it happens during watching videos on YouTube, and you can easily observe that, if you are interested in watching football matches videos, YouTube will suggest you different football matches videos each time you use it.

  • Online Advertisement:

It is very clear how the algorithm works when searching for a product on the internet. If you are searching for a product on Amazon or any retail website, and you did not find, or find what you want but didn't buy it, an advertisement of the same product will pursue you in most websites you visit. This is because of the algorithm. It understands what you need, and gets it for you in any website you visit, in a way that can be annoying for you.

  • Reminder:

If you book a flight ticket through the internet, or use your Gmail to receive the ticket, you will find Google reminds you 24 hours before your flight. And if you visit any website, it's probably you will find an advertisement of the airlines on which you book your flight.

  • Public opinion trends:

One job for the algorithm is also to determine public opinion trends. You can see this very clear on Twitter. Hashtag trends on twitter reflects the most popular conversations, which consider a public opinion trend. It depends on certain algorithm that take many inputs into consideration to say this hashtag is a trend, like the number of new tweets in the hashtag, the speed of new tweets, the number of retweets, the degree of relationship between tweeters. Therefore, algorithms can help in determining public opinion trends, attracts people’s attention to certain topics, and encourages them to get involved in.

  • Filtering and censoring content:

One of the most common uses of the algorithm is censoring and filtering the content. Most governments have laws that criminalizes accessing to certain websites, like sexual or radical and extremist websites. In this regard, they use certain algorithm to filter the content, depending on some key words, if the content has these words, the algorithm starts its work by preventing the website.

  • Hiring people:

One of the booming role for the algorithm is hiring people. Companies depend on software to determine who should be hired and who should be fired. The algorithm takes several inputs of the individual abilities, like his past experiences, studies, talents, and other information like his accommodation, religion, and more information from his social media walls, then starts to develop scenarios for his expected performance if he has been hired.

Although the result could be beneficial for the company, but it has some ethical aspects, because it may have some kind of discrimination, as the algorithms is going to hire the one who is near to the company area, to save time and effort, this area could have specific ethnic group, and this will reflect in the company’s demographic characteristics.

  • Driverless cars:

Driverless cars make judgements and take decisions instead of you. They will stop, increase their speed, or turn, depending on the situation they face. This happens through different algorithms that take many inputs from different censors into consideration, like the distance between the car and other objects on the road, the speed of the car compared to other cars, and the status of the road, then the car takes its decision instead of you.

Should algorithms have ethics?

Algorithms now prioritize your interests, affect your purchase decisions, direct public opinions, filter the online content, suggest road maps, and drive your car. More than that, they can hire people or fire them, many functions algorithm do.

So, is that require ethics to operate, are there any guarantees for the accountability in case of error? who can assure that the search engine results are not biased, who can stop specific advertisement from pursuing me, who can assure that the road map suggested through mobile app is safe and secured, how to assure that the public opinion trends are not fake, how to assure that the hiring software doesn’t have some kind of discrimination?  

From search engine results, to predictive policing, algorithms are determining and shaping even more parts of our lives. Now it’s the time to raise the importance of regulating the algorithms and have ethics for we should have the moral aspect of our lives on numbers. Until this happens, the question will remain: If the driverless car is going to hit a child or an old woman, what will be its decision?

Ehab Abdel Hamid Khalif is head of the Media and Technology Unit, Future center for advanced research and studies, Abu Dhabi, UAE. He holds a masters degree in Cyber power and Managing International Relations and is currently studying for his PhD at Cairo University. 

 


[1] - lbackstrom, The Importance of Algorithms, topcoder, accessed on 10 may 2015 on  

https://www.topcoder.com/community/data-science/data-science-tutorials/the-importance-of-algorithms/

[2] - The Running Time of Programs, Stanford, accessed on 10 August 2015 on

http://infolab.stanford.edu/~ullman/focs/ch03.pdf

[3] -Algorithms, Google, Visited on 11 May 2015, on

https://www.google.com/insidesearch/howsearchworks/algorithms.html

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