Week 8 summary: algorithms

(Note I am posting this summary to belatedly capture my engagement with the course during the period. Because of work pressures, I was unable to publish this on time. This post is based on a review of the course calendar and my Twitter activity.)

When the introductory post to Block 3 mentioned how the presence of algorithms are acknowledged only when they produce unintended results (as in the case of Kim Jon-un’s mistaken photo), my first reaction was to look for a list of face recognition fails I had previously seen on the web. Although teaching computers how to recognise images is a rapidly evolving field, its current state, especially as implemented in consumer equipment such as cameras, can lead to hilarious results. The list of funny face-recogntion fails was my first tweet for the block.

We are surrounded by algorithms and it was easy to find other examples. During the week, I also tweeted how the SIRI algorithm on iPhones work. As with other examples, how the algorithm works is rarely known because it is purposely kept hidden by commercial interests and perhaps because their technological sophistication can be understood only by specialists. Either way, it is ironic that a device we are unaware of a device we are intimate with (we carry it around at all times, we keep it close). It is in a sense like sleeping with the enemy.

Algorithms in retail shopping show how invasive algorithms work. I tweeted a New York Times video on how algorithms can determine female shoppers are pregnant based on changes in their shopping patterns, and how algorithms recommend related products accordingly. This uncanny accuracy makes shoppers uncomfortable so retailers changed their strategy by purposely including seemingly random objects in the mix: table cloth with diapers, a familiar jam with milk formula for babies. The video is a good example of the privacy concerns raised by how algorithms.

Other concerns include reliability of data sources, disclosure and ongoing maintenance (not just development) of the algorithm. This issues form part of the ethical guideline for news articles written by algorithms, another link I tweeted in the block.

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