May 18, 2020
Some have said that we are living in the age of algorithms. Netflix uses an algorithm to recommend videos. Facebook has an algorithm that displays the posts and advertisements you’re most likely to interact with. Google’s algorithm serves different search results to different people, based on prior Web traffic. Amazon’s algorithm makes recommendations for things you might want to buy. Match’s algorithm identifies people with whom you are likely to be romantically compatible. We have smart thermostats that use algorithms to learn user’s climate-control preferences. My 11-year-old son uses an algorithm to solve Rubik’s cubes in under a minute.
An algorithm is really nothing more than a mathematical model or formula that accepts inputs, applies calculations, and provides output. Cathy O’Neil, the author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, introduces the idea of an algorithm as being similar to making a family dinner, taking into account the various likes, dislikes, and quantities her family needs. Algorithms can be extremely useful in automating and understanding large, complex sets of information—for example, searching for a document on your hard disk. But they can also be harmful, as several articles about YouTube have noted, describing how their algorithm tends to lead viewers down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, propaganda, and salacious content. Read More