Five truths about algorithms you should know

In her TEDxLBS talk, Dr Gah-Yi Ban lays out fundamental truths about algorithms that you need to know in the digital age


Over the past couple of years, we have seen a backlash against the tech industry, arising from events such as the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. At the heart of such scandals, there are worries about data privacy, and how data are used against us by massively scalable algorithms. It is no wonder then, that one in four adults I surveyed, in the US, thought algorithms are ‘evil’.*

Yet, algorithms are playing ever greater roles in our lives. From matching us with an Uber driver, Googling restaurants nearby to screening job candidates resumes – algorithms have become ubiquitous. This trend will only continue, as society continues to discover the value of automation and big data. Given this, what can we do to harness the value of algorithms, while mitigating their risks?

The key, I think, is to have a forum where both creators and users of algorithms that affect people’s lives can get together to discuss potential issues, before the algorithms are deployed on a massive scale. It’s important for creators of algorithms – no matter how high their IQ- to engage with as many potential users as possible early on, to prevent unintended consequences for users and the company’s own longterm value. After all, any prank-loving child could have pointed out how you could create fake accounts and spread lies on the internet, when shown Facebook in 2004. So, I don’t believe you need to be a computer scientist to help shape our algorithmic future. That being said, there are some fundamentals you need to know, which I discuss in my TEDxLBS talk, ‘The Power and Perils of Algorithms’:

In April 2019, Google tried but failed to set up an independent ethics board around AI, machine learning and facial recognition. The idea was great in principle, but there was an outcry over one of the high-profile appointments, so everyone else resigned. I hope this won’t deter further efforts in creating ethics boards for technology, and when they do get formed, there is a mechanism for the general public to raise reasonable concerns.

*125 adults in the US surveyed in April 2019 (Survey Monkey/Gah-Yi Ban)

Gah-Yi Ban is an Assistant Professor of Management Science and Operations at London Business School.



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