The Problem With Defining Bad Algorithms in Software Development

Increasingly, our lives are run by algorithms. When we run to Google for search for the answer to a question that’s been plaguing us, we’re tapping into an algorithm that will find us the best possible result. When we open Facebook or Twitter for a rundown of all the latest news and updates from our friends, we’re relying on an algorithm to show us the most relevant content. We can even use algorithms to make predictions, evaluate data, and help us make better decisions in our jobs.

But as we grow more reliant on algorithms, some experts are speculating about the ethical nature of algorithms, and whether we should be applying stricter or more thoughtful ethical standards to these powerful technological tools.

Ethics in technology is an important subject, but it’s much harder to apply ethics to algorithms than it appears on the surface.

The Basics of Algorithms

Let’s start with a basic explanation of what algorithms are, for the uninitiated. Algorithms are basically sets of rules that a machine can apply to achieve some kind of function. For example, let’s say you have a list of 100 different names, and you want to alphabetize them. There are many different sorting algorithms you could use to accomplish this; each one provides a different set of instructions for how to sort these names, with all of them attempting to achieve the end result of a perfectly alphabetized list of 100 names. For example, one algorithm might look at each name individually and place it where it belongs in the list, compared to other names that have already been evaluated. Another algorithm might look for names that start with A, then names that start with B, and so on.

Algorithms can be used for tasks ranging from simple to complex. For example, they can be used to evaluate the position of names in alphabetical order, but they can also be used to evaluate the trustworthiness of a website based on the number, quality, and nature of links pointing to it, as is the case with Google search, hence why sites like Link.Build focus so much on that one aspect of the algorithm. 

How can these algorithms be “bad” if they’re just tools to achieve a result?

New Ethical Problems With Algorithms

There are several ethical problems that have arisen with algorithms in recent years:

Addiction and repetition. First, we can consider the fact that many algorithms are intentionally engineered to keep people using a specific product for as long as possible. This is perhaps best demonstrated on social media, where algorithms are designed to keep users engaged; with the help of the right algorithm, users can be shown exactly the right types of content in exactly the right order to get them to like, comment, share, and otherwise react. This keeps them using the app for a longer period of time, enabling the social media company to make more money from the user via advertising. But the side effect of this is that each user who falls victim to the algorithm’s whims will be losing time almost unconsciously. In extreme cases, social media users can get addicted to the app, the same way they could get addicted to any drug designed to encourage thoughtless, repetitive use.

Negativity bias. We also need to consider the role of negativity bias as it applies to algorithms. Human beings are negative creatures; we tend to be more affected by a negative event than a positive event, even if they’re a similar magnitude. For example, losing $10 is associated with stronger feelings than winning $10, even though it’s the same amount of money. Algorithms that provide content to people, in search or social media, tend to be focused on giving them content that keeps them engaged—but in many cases, this means bombarding them with bad news and outrageous stories. This can end up increasing stress and decreasing quality of life for these users.

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