You summon algorithms every time you pick up your smartphone. They’re used for everything from unlocking your phone with your face to selecting which TikTok videos to updating your Google Maps route to avoid a freeway accident on your way to work.
An algorithm is a set of rules or steps that a computer follows to produce a result. Algorithms are used in a wide range of processes, both online and offline, from determining the value of your home to teaching your robot vacuum to avoid your dog’s poop. They’ve been entrusted with more and more life-altering decisions over the years, such as deciding who to arrest, who should be released from jail before a court date, and who is approved for a home loan.
Algorithms have come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks, with questions raised about how tech companies should change how they use them. This is in response to concerns raised during hearings with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, as well as bipartisan legislation introduced in the House (a companion bill had previously been reintroduced in the Senate). These developments show that people are becoming more aware of the critical role that algorithms play in our society.
“At this point, they are responsible for making decisions about pretty much every aspect of our lives,” said Chris Gilliard, a visiting research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.
However, the workings of algorithms and the conclusions they reach can be mysterious, especially as artificial intelligence techniques are used to make them more complex. Their consequences aren’t always clear or accurate, and the results can be disastrous. Furthermore, the impact of potential new legislation aimed at limiting the impact of algorithms on our lives is unknown.