The Ethics of Algorithms – Why should we care?
13 November 2015 - Impact Hub Berlin

Algorithms shape our world(s)!

Guest post by Joanna Bronowicka and the Centre for Internet and Human Rights

Digitalization produces increasing amounts of datasets known as ‘big data’. So far, research focused on how ‘big data is produced and stored. Now, we begin to scrutinize how algorithms make sense of this growing amount of dataOur everyday life is shaped by computers and our computers are shaped by algorithms. Digital computation is constantly changing how we communicate, work, move, and learn. In short, digitally connected computers are changing how we live our lives. This revolution is unlikely to stop any time soon.

Algorithms are the brains of our computers, mobiles, Internet of Things. Algorithms are increasingly used to make decisions for us, about us, or with us – oftentimes without us realizing it. This raises many questions about the ethical dimension of algorithms.

What is an algorithm?

The term ‘algorithm’ refers to any computer code that carries out a set of instructions. Algorithms are essential to the way computers process data. Theoretically speaking, they are encoded procedures, which transform data based on specific calculations. They consist of a series of steps that are undertaken to solve a particular problem, like in a recipe. An algorithm is taking inputs (ingredients), breaking a task into its constituent parts, undertaking those tasks one by one, and then producing an output (e.g. a cake). A simple example of an algorithm is “find the largest number in this series of numbers”.

Why do algorithms raise ethical concerns?

First, let’s have a closer look at some of the critical features of algorithms. What are typical functions they perform? What are negative impacts for human rights? Here are some examples that probably affect you too.

They keep information away from us

Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published at all, and what is censored. This is true for all kinds of search rankings, for example the way your social media newsfeed looks. In other words, algorithms perform a gate-keeping function.

Example: Hiring algorithms decide if you are invited for an interview
  • Algorithms, rather than managers, are more and more taking part in hiring (and firing) of employees. Deciding who gets a job and who does not, is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
  • Research shows that human managers display many different biases in hiring decisions, for example based on social class, race and gender. Clearly, human hiring systems are far from perfect.
  • Nevertheless, we may not simply assume that algorithmic hiring can easily overcome human biases. Algorithms might work more accurate in some areas, but can also create new, sometimes unintended, problems depending on how they are programmed and what input data is used.

Ethical implications: Algorithms work as gatekeepers that influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. They channel our attention, which implies tremendous power.

For the full blog post, click here.