A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending the absolutely terrifying conference presented by Kevin Slavin from the MIT Media Lab, who discussed how algorithms and machines are progressively taking over our lives. He outlined a series of examples to support his theory.
It all began in 1994, when developers were obsessed with a game: battle of the algorithm. It all had to do with developing a program that would battle another program by anticipating what the other program was going to do. Slavin explains that what could have been a really cool game has since spiralled out of control.
The most well-known example is the stock exchange, where algorithms govern markets, acting on their own to make decisions that seemingly come out of thin air. Last year, algorithms went into a tailspin no less than 18,000 times, meaning as many micro-crashes within fractions of seconds where stock prices may drop a few cents before climbing back up. As long as everything goes well, that is.
But Slavin demonstrates that this new order doesn’t only apply to the stock exchange. Left up to an algorithm to determine book prices, the stimulating genetics manual, The Making of a Fly, hit the astonishing price of $23 million on Amazon.
An elevator manufacturer developed an algorithm to predict which floor the elevator was going to stop on. He even went so far as to remove the floor buttons, which had become redundant. The problem is that people panic when they get into an elevator without buttons, especially when there isn’t a button to stop the elevator in case of an emergency.
Over 60% of films viewed on Netflix are chosen based on a recommendation algorithm.
And now, algorithms are going one step further to estimate script potential for new movies and TV shows (a previous article recounts how Netflix made its production choices for House of Cards based on viewer data). In the end, Netflix will end up just like the 1994 game and the stock exchange, with production algorithms locked in loops with distribution algorithms and without any human oversight…
Would the future be so bleak if machines finally ran the world?
Slavin gives us reasons to hope. For over two years now, the best chess algorithm is better than the best human. A competition was organized; it was open to anyone who wanted to enter – humans, machines, groups of humans, groups of machines, combinations of humans and machines – and against all odds, two amateurs with three machines and a mediocre algorithm won. They beat the best algorithm in the world. Closer to everyday lives, Slavin states that the best way to “beat” Google’s search algorithm is still a human who can “hack” system logic with the help of some good software.
Slavin’s conclusion? We shouldn’t be afraid of machines, but rather, realize that they are only truly powerful when humans are involved. Citizens must be vigilant to stop the frenzy of autonomous machines running the world and put pressure on controlling bodies (like the SEC for the stock exchange or civil aviation authorities) to maintain the human factor in the equation.
Read more from Jean Pascal at A Nos Vies Numériques.