We should not let computer programs control our lives
By now, most people will have realized how much Google, Facebook, YouTube and other big websites know about us. They not only know what we like and thus propose posts and videos that are in tune with our preferences, they somehow also know where we have been (online and on the ground) and take all that into account as soon as we visit one of them. What most people do not realize, however, is that such big sites have entered all areas of our lives and now play important roles in them, from medicine to justice and crime.
That is what Hannah Fry set out to enlighten us about in her book, “Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine,” which was shortlisted for the 2018 Royal Society Science Book Prize. Fry is a British mathematician, lecturer, broadcaster, author and public speaker who specializes in the impact of mathematics in our lives today.
Her first book was titled “The Mathematics of Love” and it researched the hidden patterns behind our love, sex, marriage, divorce, and all such behavior. In this new, excellent book, she explores the extent to which computer programs (or algorithms) are slowly and silently driving our lives, most of the time without us noticing.
There are areas where we have noticed the increasing role of computer programs, sometimes to our satisfaction, such as in medicine, and sometimes to our discomfort and concern, for example with social media. Indeed, if your doctor runs your blood tests and your digital scans through a program to pinpoint your illness (through patterns in the scans that human eyes can’t see), flag any hidden allergies (from similarities with other patients in the database) or get a recommendation for treatment from the software, you will certainly applaud and even thank God that you have access to such advanced medicine. But, if Facebook starts showing you ads that relate to items you shopped for online earlier in the day, then you will probably start worrying about being “followed,” even if the ad might well be useful to you.
Algorithms, however accurate they can be, are far from perfect, and their errors can be costly.
Here’s an interesting example that Fry gives to illustrate the growing dilemma that we have with such issues. In the field of justice, there are now algorithms that take as input the information about a case and give as output the decision that should be rendered, considering all the laws and precedents.
You may be surprised to learn that these programs are fairer (more just) than judges. Indeed, Fry mentions studies that show judges to often be inconsistent and (unconsciously) biased, influenced by factors such as the gender and age of the accused, the family status of the judge (with or without children, sons or daughters, etc.), and even the time of the day (before or after lunch, in particular). So, if you commit an offense, would you prefer to be judged by a computer program or by a human magistrate? The computer will be fairer, but the judge will be human, more inclined to listen to you, take your circumstances into consideration, and exercise compassion.
And there lies the dilemma. It is so much easier and more convenient to use computer programs in our lives, but there needs to be a balance between the technical accuracy that they provide and the human input that must always be there.
In fact, algorithms, however accurate they can be, are far from perfect, and their errors can be costly. Take, for example, the face recognition software that is used more and more often in airports and train stations to either pass people through quickly or stop them because they are on a blacklist. Fry relates a number of incorrect identifications that wrecked the lives of the victims for months or even years before they were cleared.
Likewise, algorithms are being used (with some success) in predicting the places and times where crimes are likely to occur — thus sending more police officers and patrols there — and even where the criminal that is being sought for a series of crimes most likely lives. This sounds like science fiction, but it is actually our social reality, which has quickly evolved with the fast development of big computer programs.
We need to be fully cognizant of this rapid development, lest we wake up tomorrow and find that our lives are completely ruled over by computers and algorithms.
The message that Fry stresses throughout her book and insists on at the end is that computer programs should indeed be widely used, but they must always be kept under human control, serving as our assistants and not the other way around.
I highly recommend this book to everyone: It is richly informative and a very easy read, but also a warning to proceed carefully and never give away our responsibilities and control duties to computers.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum