On Algorithms, for Better or Worse

The Wiki definition: “In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is an unambiguous specification of how to solve a class of problems. Algorithms can perform calculation, data processing, automated reasoning, and other tasks.”

In A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence, Kartik Hosdanagar explains how they “are shaping our lives and how we can stay in control” of our relationships with them.

He observes, “When you think of the word ‘algorithm,’ you might picture a computer crunching numbers according to a formula. But stated quite simply, an algorithm is merely a series of steps one follows to get something done. For example, I follow a series of steps when I make an omelet. You might call it an omelet recipe, but the former engineer in me views it as an omelet algorithm.”

Control is a key issue. Hosdanagar examines three dimensions: behavioral, cognitive, and decisional (See Pages 165-180). For example, if man is in control of the algorithms of a fully driverless car, it will do whatever it has been programed to do. Occupants are delivered to their destination. Autopilot offers another example. It dates back to 1913 and got its first use during a commercial flight in 1931. It is still used today and resembles in some respects the cruise control function developed for vehicles.

Hosdanagar  cites this observation by William Langewiesche: “Automation has made it more and more unlikely that ordinary airline pilots will ever have to face a raw crisis in flight — but also more and more unlikely that they will be able to cope with such a crisis if one occurs.” The recent tragedies involving the 737 MAX suggest the perils involved.

There are several complicated issues that must be resolved.  The fact remains that humans will defer increasingly to algorithms to complete certain tasks and/or processes — because AI can ensure that they are fsult-0free — but humans must be prepared to regain control if and whenever necessary. In this instance, I am again reminded of the sorcerer’s apprentice who first appeared in a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1797) and later in the Disney film, Fantasia (1940).

Who will be our digital apprentices in months and years to come? Or will we be theirs?

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Kartik Hosanagar is the John C. Hower Professor of Technology and Digital Business and a Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Kartik’s research work focuses on the digital economy, in particular the impact of analytics and algorithms on consumers and society, Internet media, Internet marketing and e-commerce. A Human’s Guide to Algorithms was published by Viking (March 2019).


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