As a Director of two data driven companies, I have always held the belief that when correctly applied, well-harnessed, algorithmically processed data has the potential to challenge the limits of human decision making. While few would challenge the increased role that automation and machine learning will play in our lives, there are questions as to the extent to which human decision making will become obsolete
You can't help but notice how algorithms are everywhere these days, and have been for a while. They track and predict how we behave in virtually all walks of life, as companies and institutions pivot to meet our needs better (or their own, depending on your level of cynicism). We're told how entire industries, not least finance and mass retail, rely almost totally on algorithms to function. Intelligent algorithms no less; they learn incrementally over time as their data sets grow...something that can sound a bit spooky to laymen like me, but which our CTO tells me is perfectly harmless.
Whichever way we look at it, the algorithm, and more accurately data science, are here to stay. The ability to capture and interpret vast data sets has transformed virtually every facet of human interaction: how we browse, what we buy, what messages we are bombarded with, how and on what we are advised. And increasingly science is determining our social interactions too. Consider at a basic level just how much more continuous insight you have into the lives of all your acquaintances than a few years ago, and how this impacts how you interact when you meet them. We are all budding data scientists in one way or another, only not all of us have realized it yet.
But have algorithms improved our quality of life or just made it more complex? Can we get by solely based on their advice? Do they really know what we want or need before we know it ourselves?
Well most people agree that the benefits offered by data-driven technology are vast and we've barely scraped the surface of what is possible. The industry in which I generally focus, marketing communications, is being transformed by the growing ability to spot and engage true community influencers and leaders like never before. Even more utopic visions are being targeted in other areas, for example in medicine, where data analytics looks to predict future health problems, while Wired recently started urging parents to tell their kids "to be data scientists, not doctors".
At the risk of upsetting those of us convinced we're entering into some dystopian age, soon to be incapable of making our own decisions, though, I'm sceptical that the algorithm is going to take over completely anytime soon. As a friend of mine constantly reminds me 'the problem with people is they don't always behave as you think they should.'
When I lived in Moscow, I remember being bombarded online with ads for Gucci loafers and real fur-lined winter coats - items I would never consider buying (no offence to fans of either), but which obviously had been matched to my online profile.
A rather trite example, obviously, but one that hopefully illustrates the need for that final human filter in any selection process, be it for a pair of shoes, a coat or indeed a life partner. The recent surge in match-making sites is to many the first, ominous step towards overtly using data science for choosing a partner. But to others, they're just providing a vital filtering service for busy people struggling to meet like-minded others in an increasingly impersonal world (which begs the question - are some of us blaming algorithms for trying to solve problems they wish didn't exist?).
The notion that algorithms are taking over the world isn't exactly new. Consider this excellent TED speech from 2012. Christopher Steiner argues it will be where we draw the line between data science and human behaviour which will truly determine how healthy the final impact will be. Algorithms are good, he says, but in the wrong hands can be harmful - indeed, a number of recent events have highlighted the need for a human filter to support algorithms, not least this one involving Facebook.
But if Steiner is right, then who draws this line? Can we as individuals and society influence it?
Well one answer is we absolutely need to, or the dystopian vision that worries many might well become reality. But surely in our behaviour and interactions we are influencing already where that line is being drawn? Algorithms have indeed transformed our lives...and, in my (and most people's) view, absolutely for the better. But has human insight and deliberation into key decision making (for a job, a partner, a holiday etc) become any less important? I don't think so - and I don't think it will anytime soon. We should embrace the algorithm for the endless possibilities it offers - but make sure we stay the right side of that line.