Algorithms - is anyone in control?


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I have written nearly 30 posts about Algorithms as they are the foundation of your computing interactions and you are influenced by them. The data that you leave (willingly or not), is your digital footprint and is the basis of what an algorithm knows about you and how you can be modelled to a known data set. Data about you generated by others helps refine and confirm how well I have been able to model you and your preferences. An algorithm is, according to Wikipedia, is a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Algorithms are used for calculationdata processing, and automated reasoning.


A starting point is Dan Ariely’s work, (Truth, Predictably Irrational, Behaviour, Desire Engines) – from this direction you will conclude that we are creatures of habit and habits can be modelled and coded into an algorithm.  Therefore you are not as irrational as you think and it is possible with a degree of probability to predict what you will do next or at some point.


Another stating point is chemistry.  Humans, our bodily form, are essentially a complex algorithm of chemicals. Depending on the level of chemicals in your body right now based on a complex interaction with your DNA, we will react in certain ways and those reactions can be found to from certain biases and can be modelled – fear and flight experiments. Experience is both part of how we reacted to the environment and how our unique body made a chemical cocktail to react to that same environment and some chemical structure has learnt (remembered) how that reaction worked ( whatever worked is!)


A question these points raise is “Can “data” be human?”  Given that we can be modelled, based on who and what we are, how we react  - that chemical cocktail, could we model human behaviour? – and would that model be human?


None of this thinking is new as Keynes's observation (in his General Theory of economics) said  "practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist"


So the question is not if you can become an algorithm but how accurate can an algorithm model you!


If the only data set is your Facebook profile then there is not a hope (of being modelled accurately), however, if sensors collected all your data from all interactions and reactions then it is probably that a model will reflect your behaviour with a high degree of accuracy.  The issues are that sensors cannot (today) determine…..


·         The chemical cocktail in your body, only the reaction, but his will happen.

·         See the very subtle facial expressions that another human can see

·         Blend the yours and others biases to create who you will react together

·         The difference between Signals and Noise.


Today’s sensors are blind to most human interactions, however, that will change (Apple already have patents on sensors for blood sugars and Oxygen levels based on your ear buds) and in the long term these sensors will arrive, the question remains who will write the model about how you will react to a new situation, a new environment, a new complex inter-relationship of small changes?


I have a fascination with Algorithmic bias – that someone will write and code the algorithm on how you should react based on how they would react – therefore your reaction becomes a blend or yours then theirs, hence my question “Algorithms - is anyone in control?”


Steven Lukes (sociologist) indicates that power comes in three varieties: the ability to stop people doing what they want to do; the ability to compel them to do things that they don't want to do: and the ability to shape the way they think.


Given that algorithms are now doing all three in your life, is the question are you in control or who is in control?