Why Experts Worry Algorithms Can Do More Harm Than Good

by Mohana Ravindranath, NextGov.com

Some tech experts fear the mathematical equations underlying much of today’s data analytics technology could ultimately be dangerous for individuals.

In a poll of about 1,300 people who closely observe technology development, about 37 percent concluded algorithms could have more negative societal impacts than positive ones, according to a new Pew report.

“Sometimes, the application of algorithms created with good intentions leads to unintended consequences,” said the report, which canvassed futurists including Defense One‘s Patrick Tucker.

The potential misuse of algorithms has garnered increased attention recently. In May, the White House published a report warning about the downsides of big data. For instance, the algorithm that suggests a credit score for an applicant with no credit history might draw on that person’s phone bills or social media connections; but it could also create greater disparities between communities by providing a lower credit score to applicants who share attributes with other low-credit customers, such as shopping at the same grocery store.

The Pew report notes when algorithms are making decisions that could have major social ramifications, “humans are considered to be an ‘input’ to the process and they are not seen as real, thinking, feeling, changing beings.”

In addition, the report says experts agreed this model gives rise to a “flawed, logic-driven society and that as the process evolves–that is, as algorithms begin to write the algorithms–humans may get left out of the loop, letting the robots decide.” Justin Reich, executive director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Teach Systems Lab, thinks a dearth of diversity in the tech workforce could be fortifying racial, sexual, and other prejudices encoded into algorithms.  Read the report.

DCL: One would hardly call these methods of cutting and slicing data “algorithms” in the true sense of the word. Perhaps “Guesstimates” would be better?  And God knows what is masquerading under the banner of CEP these days!

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