Are we trapped in or inspired by algorithms?

Published on 06.06.2019

The more our everyday routines, our professional careers and our private lives are dominated by computers, smartphones as well as intelligent machines and devices, the more algorithms help and influence us. Algorithms already take care of plenty of things without confirming or even asking for permission. In many cases they pre-select a range of options. Algorithms determine processes, they choose a variety from a vast range of things. There are some elements we don’t even take notice of anymore because we have forgotten about them.

Which film would we like to watch on our preferred video streaming service? What kind of music could we listen to? Which medical services and hotels does the search engine place at the top of the results? It goes without saying that this has an economic effect on those we can find and those we can’t. And it also has an effect on you: Ideally, you save money or, for instance, you sleep in a more comfortable bed in a larger room. However, can an algorithm really pick up on and define aspects including “quality” and “atmosphere”?

Food, job, partner: does it all just depend on algorithms nowadays?

In some instances algorithms may have even “decided” or pre-filtered in terms of with whom users searching for a hotel will be sharing the room as online dating sites also work on the basis of algorithms. They thus influence crucial elements, such as our love life, whether we have children, where we live and any associated consequences. We may also change jobs, for instance because we want to move in with our partner, and thus commuting becomes impossible as a result of the distances involved.

What even is an algorithm?

Algorithms consist of individual, exactly pre-defined steps. For this reason, they can be programmed and form a paramount element in solving problems in the age of computers. Information technology without algorithms is actually inconceivable.

However, algorithms can also be applied without having to use computers, for instance in maths lessons or in electronics. For instance, control algorithms are responsible for changing traffic lights. Algorithms can also be phrased so that we can understand what they are intending to do. “If there are two routes that differ in length, select the shorter route”, would be an example of how to express the objective of a simple algorithm in everyday language. The principle worked for messengers in ancient Greece and it still applies today.

If we now add in several other algorithms, for instance “if the distances of a motorway route and a non-motorway route are identical, opt for the motorway route”, we can – at least to some extent – define the procedures that go on within navigation systems in a language we understand. Applying these methods can help clients when they brief programmers. A certain pre-defined task always lies at the core.

Algorithms liberate us – and they can be modified.

Algorithms are, and always have been, imperative. They take care of many things for us. They give us time we will hopefully use wisely. Programmers and their clients can steer algorithms in certain directions, but those affected by them can also modify them. If you know how search engines’ crawlers and underlying computer operations work, you can catapult yourself to the top of the search results. This helps those companies that are aware of the procedures and make the most of it – but it also has an indirect, negative influence on their competition who might be providing the better product, better service, the more ethical vision? And this is not limited to the economy, but also affects culture and politics.

The crux will probably be finding the right mix of algorithms and gut instinct in the future.

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