Life among the algorithms

We are increasingly living in a world regulated by algorithms. Everything from our access to information through air travel and the ways governments treat us is determined in this manner. We would, in fact, be unable to live our contemporary form of life without this.

But this still expanding aspect of life also creates a host of new problems. One of them is that of transparency. Information about us is used by businesses, governments (friendly and unfriendly), and other unaccountable bodies. But in ways we are rarely told of.

More serious still is the fact that we are heaping algorithms on algorithms and this can lead to unwanted outcomes, even to crashes that no one has been able to foresee. Some experts think that such events are already occurring regularly in the world’s stock markets, particularly in places where computers are used in High Frequency trading.

A third threat arises from the fact that we are now designing algorithms that are capable of modifying themselves, of adapting and learning. We may end up not knowing any longer how these will function. The danger is that we may be losing control over our own technology.

Our engineers are unable to tell us what needs to be done in this situation and so they are passing the burden to others. They speak, accordingly, of ethics as “the new frontier in tech,” and foresee even “a golden age for philosophy…. Where there are choices to be made, that’s where ethics comes in.” But philosophers thinking about ethics are unlikely to be able to resolve the problems created by our new technologies. They can perhaps alert us to the existence and urgency of these problems but it’s not in the nature of philosophy to provide us with ready-made answers.

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