Is The World Run By Algorithms?

The mathematics we learn at school is shaping the world as computer-driven algorithms influence what we do and how we do it. But instead of making our lives better they often make things worse.

Faulty algorithms

Algorithms are used in all areas of life to decide whether or not we get a job, a mortgage or even a spouse. They are supposed to minimise prejudice and allow fair and objective decision-making by following a set of mathematical rules to find solutions to problems. But they are designed by people and so reflect their natural experiences and biases. The widespread use of algorithms is however under review, as the often incorrect assumptions determine who is included and excluded from different aspects of life.

The power of maths has always been its capacity to analyse data on a massive scale, identify patterns and solve problems. In recent years however maths based algorithms are used to influence people’s choices and generate enormous profits for the companies that deploy them. Following the financial crash of a decade ago, the focus of maths shifted from analysing markets to analysing people’s lives through the detail of their habits and behaviours. Algorithms devised by the giants of social media such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix gather every piece of information about the choices we make. They examine our spending decisions in minute detail, as a way to decide credit scores, suitability for loans, employment prospects and much more.

Faulty decisions

The use of algorithms is promoted as a way to make faster, cheaper, and more effective decisions. But the models reflect the beliefs of those who design them: the majority of whom are men who work for a small number of technology companies having graduated from a small group of universities and studied a small range of subjects taught by a small group of other men trained in the same way by the same universities. The most worrying aspect of such algorithms is the lack of access to their underlying assumptions and workings. Because such formulas are seen as complicated they are seldom questioned, even when it is proven they benefit the better off and disadvantage those worst off in society.

The difficulty with relying on algorithms is that the majority of people are judged by their often mistaken assumptions while an elite minority still enjoy the luxury of contact with other people about the decisions that affect their lives. Those at the mercy of decisions made by algorithms know the injustice of being refused without explanation or recourse to appeal. When decisions are made in this way, it is easy to see why greater numbers of people are frustrated with the unfairness of a system they cannot influence. To make matter worse the lack of information and sense of mystery that surrounds algorithm design is used to confound those who question their outcomes.

So, maths-based, computer-driven algorithms make decisions that affect our lives even though the models are often flawed in design and application.