Artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged in the public debate with Deep Mind’s recent win over a champion of the Chinese game GO. AI is all about computers getting better at solving problems formerly thought too difficult which should be left to humans. Since the 1970s, a small group of computer specialists and mathematicians based their hopes on teaching machines to follow the rule-based learning of human reasoning. They designed algorithms (coding these rules into software programs) which they hoped would enable computers to emulate human thought processes.
Today, these algorithms run more and more of our everyday lives. They can decide whether our credit score is good, if we get hired for a job, whether we can board an airplane or get admitted to the country of our destination. Algorithms dominate the world’s stock exchanges, evaluating most companies and deciding whether to buy or sell, as well as causing “flash crashes”. Political campaigns are based on algorithms deciding which voters will turn out and which candidates they’ll favor. The much vaunted Internet of Things (IoT) uses algorithms to monitor our babies, open our locks, control our use of energy, steer our cars and oversee our fitness programs and diets. Algorithms control which ads we see online, monitor our buying habits and track our whereabouts by GPS and our smartphones. Increasingly, algorithms program drones and weapons systems.
This brave new world of algorithms and big data has taken over the economies of most post-industrial societies and the lives of their citizens. Most relish the new connectivity, social media and instant, always-on lifestyles – happily surrendering their most personal information and privacy. Few asked about the assumptions and biases that those human programmers may have installed in all these algorithms.