Block That Algorithm

Companies across industries are allured by algorithms to find the next business opportunity with consumers. Google (for searches), Amazon (for book recommendations), Facebook (for newsfeeds), and many others spoil us, as consumers, by the power of the algorithm. Now, we not only expect but assume that our bank, retailer, utility provider, and almost every company that we do business with will provide curated experiences to us. Thus, algorithms have become like a treasure map for companies, but one wrong interpretation of map instructions, or a small mistake in the map itself, can quickly make companies lose their direction. The gradual reduction of human oversight regarding many automated processes poses pressing issues of accountability and respect for human sensitivities in this new digital-first world. As algorithms spread to every part of our lives, the consequent ethical challenges will become more apparent.

For instance, banks use an analytical algorithm to evaluate customers’ profiles and their loan payback abilities. Their highly trained data scientists are busy finding a pattern of loan defaulters and then something expected happens—data scientists find a pattern of loan defaulters for a certain racial community and accidentally include this variable in the analytical model. Suddenly, customers from a particular ethnic background or particular area are denied loans/financial products based on a machine’s recommandation. This bank could now face a potential lawsuit for racial discrimination that can lead to loss of reputation and business.

In another example, a crowdsourced traffic app that provides alternative routes to avoid traffic on highways has disturbed the life of quiet neighborhoods. And what if your traffic-sensitive GPS makes an error? To err is human, but when an algorithm makes a mistake, are we likely to trust it again? Probably not. Although it’s true that algorithms solve many of today’s problems and can predict things with great accuracy, they often introduce new, sometimes unanticipated ones.

The age of the algorithm has deified data scientists, and they are the darlings of recruiters for big businesses. But many of them fail to consider the ethical implications of their everyday actions, as there are no ethics guidelines set forth at most companies, and that is the fundamental issue. According to Gartner, by 2018, half of business ethics violations will occur through improper use of big data analytics. The recent book, Weapons of Math Destruction, highlights how the algorithm has become a pervasive and destructive force in our society. It further explains how current algorithm models intensify inequality and endanger democracy, and how we might rein them in. It’s scary!

There is a thin line between designing a good algorithm and crossing into unethical practices, and companies are increasingly struggling to draw that line. Since every algorithm has a human component behind its creation, it is critical for companies to add humanization to their existing analytical capabilities. A concrete step that companies must take is to develop an ethics framework for their specific industry and add it as a tool to their current analytics solutions to avoid unwanted situations. No matter how accurate your algorithm is, there will still be times when manual human interference is required.

In this video, author and journalist, Andreas Ekström explains that unbiased, cleaned search results are likely to remain a myth. Behind the development of every algorithm there is always a person with personal beliefs. That’s where people building algorithms need to identify their own personal bias and take responsibility for how it influences their work. The blend of humanity and technology is what makes a good algorithm. It’s time for companies to start injecting ethics into the core of their algorithm creation process. In fact, ethics must become a key performance indicator for every employee who has a direct or indirect connection with customer data. The starting point should be initiating a company-wide program to help people understand the legal and business consequences of unethical data practices, ways to avoid or mitigate risk, and to reinforce the outcomes of their ethical framework.

What’s your take on the future of algorithm?