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Algocracy, or will we lose our essence as algorithms take over our daily lives?

Paris
“Paris”, by Jamison Young (CC-BY 2.0)

One of the most interesting topics found in the state-of-the-art technological developments is that of algorithms. We are reaching a significantly advanced stage in which it is possible to optimize and control many crucial aspects of our societies, including Smart Grids, stock markets and even prison systems (at least in the US).

However, these also raises some concerns when it comes to the role that humans play. Some fear that human beings will transition and become mere passive agents, as opposed to active actors, in their own daily lives. Taken to an extreme, it might be the case that our participation will no longer be required in order for us to live a happy life. Such participation may even be forbidden, as it would be considered that humans are biased and error prone.

Under this new system, which may be labeled as algocracy, we won’t need to worry about what clothes we like; about how much exercise should we do; about who to date and how to best approach him or her. A set of algorithms will take care of that. One specific example come, to no surprise, from Google. By means of processing the data that Google possesses about your habits and preferences, it is now able to suggest you which restaurants you will most probably like.

Does that devalue us? Can we still be considered worthy of our successes or guilty of our mistakes? This argument can be exposed as follows:

  • Human beings should be responsible of their own decisions, which shape and determine their life. Expressed in a more romantic way, human beings should ultimately be responsible for their fate.

  • The current trend in the use of algorithms moves the decision-making process outside of human reach.

  • Consequently, algorithms undermine human liberty and, consequently, their scope and power should be limited.

We can intuitively sense that there is something off with this line of thought. While the premised might be correct, it is impossible to ignore the fact that algorithms have benefits that not only do not undermine human liberty, but, on the contrary, greatly expands it.

Medical applications come to mind. Thanks to the use of algorithms, it is now possible to detect and predict diseases that have haunted us since the beginning of our existence. They provide us with the power to live longer, more intense lives than if we were subject to the random interactions of elements in our DNA. So one would ask, which one is fairer? Does not relying on algorithms make us freer, or makes us more dependent on our own human conditions?

To be honest, the answer is much trickier that what might be implied from the previous paragraph. Of course, there are cases where algorithms have an undeniable positive impact, but there are so many different areas of applications, and so many degrees of heavily can we rely on algorithms, that it becomes a complicated matter.

While there is no a clear answer, this conversation must take place. The decisions that will define the nature of our societies, and even of our own condition as humans, are being taken now. We should not be carried away by the highly attractive benefits brought by algorithms. How crucial algorithms will be designed, auditioned, operated and evolved must be agreed by society as a whole. Their potential impact is too high to be left in the hands of an interested minority.

This blog post has only scratched the surface of what is an extense and crucial topic. I would like to revisit it in the future and try to present a more or less thorough overview of the morals implied. In the meantime, I recommend the book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, which presents this and other very interesting topics in a compelling, although sometimes forced, manner. I think that most people will enjoy it.

Published inOpinion

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