From policing to news, how algorithms are changing our lives

Carl Miller at The National: “First, write out the numbers one to 100 in 10 rows. Cross out the one. Then circle the two, and cross out all of the multiples of two. Circle the three, and do likewise. Follow those instructions, and you’ve just completed the first three steps of an algorithm, and an incredibly ancient one. Twenty-three centuries ago, Eratosthenes was sat in the great library of Alexandria, using this process (it is called Eratosthenes’ Sieve) to find and separate prime numbers. Algorithms are nothing new, indeed even the word itself is old. Fifteen centuries after Eratosthenes, Algoritmi de numero Indorum appeared on the bookshelves of European monks, and with it, the word to describe something very simple in essence: follow a series of fixed steps, in order, to achieve a given answer to a given problem. That’s it, that’s an algorithm. Simple.

 Apart from, of course, the story of algorithms is not so simple, nor so humble. In the shocked wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election, a culprit needed to be found to explain what had happened. What had, against the odds, and in the face of thousands of polls, caused this tectonic shift in US political opinion? Soon the finger was pointed. On social media, and especially on Facebook, it was alleged that pro-Trump stories, based on inaccurate information, had spread like wildfire, often eclipsing real news and honestly-checked facts.
But no human editor was thrust into the spotlight. What took centre stage was an algorithm; Facebook’s news algorithm. It was this, critics said, that was responsible for allowing the “fake news” to circulate. This algorithm wasn’t humbly finding prime numbers; it was responsible for the news that you saw (and of course didn’t see) on the largest source of news in the world. This algorithm had somehow risen to become more powerful than any newspaper editor in the world, powerful enough to possibly throw an election.
So why all the fuss? Something is now happening in society that is throwing algorithms into the spotlight. They have taken on a new significance, even an allure and mystique. Algorithms are simply tools but a web of new technologies are vastly increasing the power that these tools have over our lives. The startling leaps forward in artificial intelligence have meant that algorithms have learned how to learn, and to become capable of accomplishing tasks and tackling problems that they were never been able to achieve before. Their learning is fuelled with more data than ever before, collected, stored and connected with the constellations of sensors, data farms and services that have ushered in the age of big data.

Algorithms are also doing more things; whether welding, driving or cooking, thanks to robotics. Wherever there is some kind of exciting innovation happening, algorithms are rarely far away. They are being used in more fields, for more things, than ever before and are incomparably, incomprehensibly more capable than the algorithms recognisable to Eratosthenes….(More)”