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A Day Without Algorithms

by Daniel Castro
by and

A growing chorus of commentators is rallying against the “tyranny of the algorithm,” the notion that computer-aided decision-making might create a dystopia where automated systems ruin reputations, encourage narrow-minded discourse, harvest organs without people’s consent, and remove free will from the world altogether.

This argument isn’t just an intellectual conceit; it underpins movements in the US to regulate search engines and ban traffic-light cameras. In Europe, efforts are underway to curtail automated decisions about individuals. Taken to the extreme, this critique suggests a wholesale rejection of algorithmic decision-making.

Imagine that 10 years from now, a new US Congress dominated by members angry about “filter bubbles” and “algorithmic overlords” decides to outlaw algorithms. Let’s see how this decision might affect an average citizen.

Bob wakes up and notices the bright mid-morning sunlight and sounds of bustling traffic outside his window. He has overslept, despite having told his iPhone’s Siri app to wake him up at 7:00 a.m. From now on, he will have to remember to set his alarm manually, as his phone’s apps no longer support speech recognition.

Bob, an experienced coder, lost his job when his employer eliminated its entire analytics department, so he’s looking for work. He checks his email for responses to his job applications, only to spend half an hour slogging through emails from Nigerian scam artists and black-market pharmacies selling Viagra. It’s a shame, he thinks, that spam filters are no more.

He heads downtown to the job center and gets stuck in traffic. The roads shouldn’t be this crowded so late in the morning, but then it dawns on him: The traffic lights are no longer synchronized. Morning gridlock is now worse than ever. He considers driving into the city with one of his friends next time

so that they can use the carpool lane, but he then realizes those lanes won’t be any better now that the city has abandoned congestion pricing.

Finally reaching the job center, he takes a number and sits down. It’s a long wait because case workers are having a hard time manually matching up applicants’ skills with job openings. Bob took a little French in high school, and he briefly entertains the thought of becoming a translator, having heard that there are lots of jobs in that field since Google Translate was shut down. It could be worse, he thinks. Many of his former co-workers are now elevator operators.

With no luck at the job center, Bob stops for lunch. McDonald’s is out of hamburgers, the cashier explains, because its suppliers underestimated the amount of beef customers would demand this month. He tries to order a fish sandwich, but his credit card is declined. He calls the credit card company and discovers thousands of dollars in phony charges. This kind of fraud seems to be happening frequently now that his card no longer offers automatic fraud detection.

Next, Bob heads to the pharmacy. He picks up his prescription, oblivious to the fact that there’s a new drug that’s less expensive and more effective for his age group. Unfortunately, his insurance company doesn’t tell him that kind of thing anymore. As he leaves the building, it begins to rain. He didn’t bring an umbrella because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky this morning, and the National Weather Service is useless because it no longer issues forecasts.

Short on cash, he heads to the bank to apply for a line of credit. The exhausted-looking loan officer says Bob is a good candidate with a solid credit history, but there’s a backlog from all the manual processing. He’ll hear back in a few months.

He returns to his car, only to find that the power has gone out in the parking lot. As he heads home, he learns on the radio that there are cascading power failures in the city. This sort of thing used to happen years ago, he thinks, before the smart grid. How times have reverted since the electricity grid was made dumb again.

Arriving home hungry, damp, and discouraged, Bob decides to unwind with a movie. He picks one with an interesting description but ends up turning it off after half an hour. Too bad he can’t get good movie recommendations anymore.

Bob’s rough day might be imaginary, but the reality of banishing algorithms and automation is far from the utopian dream that some imagine. Predictions, recommendations, and personalization make people’s lives easier and richer, often in ways that go unnoticed. Rather than controlling us, algorithms give us more freedom to pursue happy and productive lives. As we build our future, we should remember that a world without algorithms is a world we would hardly recognize.

This article was originally published in InformationWeek.

Photo: Flickr User Joiseyshowaa 

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