When Algorithms Rule The World

Google, Facebook, Amazon: algorithms will soon rule our lives so we’d better understand how they work

A very scary item is hidden away the the government’s budget for this year – not an allocation of funs for joining in the Thiord World War, nor a chunk of money for building wind farms everywhere so coal and oil power stations can be closed and the weirdie beardies can have their wish and make us all sit shivering in the darmk and playing I-spy-with-my-little-eye for entertainment. It was actually the £220 was million of government funding for the new Alan Turing Institute for “big data and algorithm” research.

Today, with the awesome processing power of modern computers and the “big data” analysis, algorithms designed to analyse the shitloads of data illegally obtained every day by government security agencies and evil corporate entities like google and Microsoft, algorithms increasingly manipulate or even control what information we have access to. Technology can also be used to influence our choice of products and with our social behaviour.

In spite of all that, many people still have no idea what algorithms can do or how they are used. An algorithm is just a simple formula which must be followed to calculate the answer to a mathematical problem. (The word “algorithm” itself is derived from the eighth-century Persian mathematician Al-Khwa-rizmi- but the concept goes all the way back to the Greeks.)

Algorithms are vital to the internet because they help to order and arrange vast volumes of data at a scale and speed impossible for a human. Google’s famous PageRank algorithm counts the number of links to a page and assesses their quality to determine how important a website is. The quality and quantity of websites’ links to each other are compared and ordered; the more important websites are displayed first on the Google search page when a search query is entered. It has long been suspected however that Google’s algorithm favours those sites which bring the search engine operator revenue, though Google, a notoriously secretive corporation, are never likely to admit this.

All other search engines have similar algorithms although it is probably true to say the others do not seek to exercise the Orwellian levels of control over information as Google do.

All internet search technologies are based on proprietary algorithms. Having better algorithms than opponents is at the core of Amazon’s future plans, on Christmas Eve 2013, they patented something called a “method and system for anticipatory package shipping”: an algorithm-based system that could potentially ship products before consumers place an order for them. Algorithms that make the best sense of data can earn companies billions. That’s why they are as closely guarded as the recipe for Coca-Cola. Don’t be too scared however, when I start typing a search term and Google’s predictive text algorithm tries to complete it for me, it has never been right yet, and thus far Amazon has never recommended for me a book that I am ever likely to buy (it has recommended books that I would enjoy reading, but in these cases I’ve already read them and occasionally have actually previously bought them from Amazon. How clever is that?)

There social and economic benefits from being able to process data at much more quickly and efficiently than humans, though these fall some way short of the advantages nerds claim will be gained from letting computers do all the thinking. Some commentators believe that algorithm-led data analysis of NHS records could result in huge improvements in treatment outcomes, as we’d get a much better understanding of works and what doesn’t. If the price we must pay for these as yet unquantified benefits is loss of privacy and the sharing of our personal data with private healthcare and Big Pharma corporations, as has been suggested, are we willing to pay it given the track record of such corporations for abuses of trust.

OK, so I’m a serial dissident who feels he must always challenge the wisdom of the crowd. I’m not the only one who thinks this way however. Evgeny Morozov thinks all of this algorithmic analysis of personal information on a massive scale amounts to an incremental erosion of privacy by private companies and the state, and could even end up in Minority Report-style preventive policing. Others, like Filter Bubble author Eli Pariser, believe that by trying to use what they erroniously and arrogantly refer to as “Artificial Intelligence” (it’s really just high speed sorting and retrieval) their search engine predict our preferences with his search function, Google “limits our opportunities for serendipity, discovery, exploration” – we end up reading and watching the same things, having our horizons slowly narrowed.

As I have been saying for years, everything government and corporations do is about control and power.

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