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Algorithms: AI’s creepy control must be open to inspection

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London Guardian
January 2, 2017

The past year marked the 60th year of artificial intelligence – and, boy, did it have a lively birthday.

Pop open a computer science journal on your laptop during 2016 and you’d be assured that not only was progress happening, but it was doing so much, much faster than predicted. Today, AI and algorithms dominate our lives – from the way financial markets carry out trades to the discovery of new pharmaceutical drugs and the means by which we discover and consume our news.

But, like any invisible authority, such systems should be open to scrutiny. Yet too often they are not open and we are not even fully aware that such systems play the roles they do. For years now, companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook have personalised the information we are fed; combing through our “metadata” to choose items they think we are most likely to be interested in. This is in stark contrast to the early days of online anonymity when a popular New Yorker cartoon depicted a computer-using canine with the humorous tagline: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In 2017, not only do online companies know that we’re dogs, but also our breed and whether we prefer Bakers or Pedigree.

The use of algorithms to control the way that we’re treated extends well beyond Google’s personalised search or Facebook’s customised news feed. Tech giants such as Cisco have explored the way in which the internet could be divided into groups of customers who would receive preferential download speeds based on their perceived value. Other companies promise to use breakthroughs in speech-recognition technology in call centres: sending customers through to people with a similar personality type to their own for more effective call resolution rates.

It is a mistake to always decry this kind of personalisation as a negative. The futurist and writer Arthur C Clarke once noted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Most of us will have had the awed feeling of watching a really good magic trick when their smartphone uninvitedly pops up a relevant piece of information at just the right moment – like your iPhone remembering where your car is parked.

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This article was posted: Monday, January 2, 2017 at 7:06 am

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