Caveat Emptor: the limit of algorithms and our humanity

Remember when thinking, making decisions and carrying out everyday activities were things people did by themselves?! Gasp! No Facebook to tell you what your opinion on every issue should be. No Google to tell you exactly when to leave your house for that meeting, and most certainly no relying on some bot to draw the blinds and turn on the lights in your house.

That past seems almost as surreal as the present in which we find ourselves – a world in which almost every activity is automated and people no longer trust themselves to carry out complex tasks or take decisions without help from one AI algorithm or the other. Yet, if we step back a bit and reflect, we’ll realize that these algorithms are not the heroes that those pushing for more automation want us to believe they are.

True, they make life easier in many ways, but at the same time, they are slowly, but surely stripping away the fabric of our humanity. Algorithms can only give the best possible solution, not the most humane solution, which is critical to being human. Take Facebook for instance – in curating ‘highlights of the year,’ for users in 2014, the Facebook algorithm decided it was perfectly okay to include the death of a child, or the activities of a cheating partner. Online discussions framed this gaffe around the concept of accuracy of the algorithm, totally missing the point. Yes, of course it was accurate, but did that parent need to be reminded their child died and was it really a highlight for them? Humanity will also triumph machinity.

Or the fact that Uber’s algorithm is programmed for surge pricing in times of emergency. Cashing in on people trying to get away from a terrorist attack is not a sign of human progress, no matter how the company frames it. It’s cruelty. The unfortunate aspect is not only the immediate damage to the person who’s gouged to the last dollar in an emergency situation, but the way society itself begins to justify it as a ‘business model.’ Really?!

The constant use of algorithms is eroding what used to make life interesting. Without them life was spontaneous, ambiguous, and yes, messy, but human beings thrived on that for millennia. Now we leave it to algorithms to tell us who to date, who to collaborate with, what music to listen to. All the while, almost imperceptibly, we’re losing our humanity.

Just think aloud as if I am not one of the machinating agents!