Stop the Demonization of Algorithms


Algorithms aren’t demons, at least, most are not. Lately there has been quite a lot of negative press about algorithms. Algorithms that keep us scrolling on social media, entice us to buy specific products, and choose the perfect show to keep us watching TV.

The media paints all algorithms with the same brush, they are all evil. As a computer scientist, this honestly hurts a little. Algorithms are indispensable, a symbiotic relationship has grown between humans and their algorithms.

An algorithm can be seen as a roadmap. You describe the steps a computer should take to reach a specific goal. These goals can be very simple, like solving a maths problem. Examples of more complex algorithms are search algorithms. These algorithms try to find the shortest route between two points, as quickly as possible. These types of algorithms are truly indispensable, I mean, who even uses a paper map anymore?!

Some algorithms can save your life. Think of algorithms that MRI and CT machines use. The sheer amount of data these machines produce can realistically only be crunched by computers. Without these algorithms these types of machines could not exist, and the search for perhaps life threatening ailments would become a lot more difficult.

And what about cars? Nowadays cars are essentially computers with wheels. They use algorithms to automatically stay in the lane, keep a certain distance from the car in front of you, and even prevent collisions. Some cars can even drive almost fully autonomously. Planes already fly fully autonomously, most of your plane journey you are in the hands of the automatic pilot, another algorithm.

Sadly, there are also ‘evil’ algorithms. When there is talk in the media about algorithms, it’s almost always about this small subset. Algorithms like the ones Facebook and Twitter use to find relevant content for you, and keep you on their platform just a little longer. Algorithms that analyse your likes and shares, to find the perfect advertisement for you. Algorithms that can recognise your face between millions of others. Algorithms that decide if someone is guilty or not.

We are slowly becoming one with our algorithms. Some things we can’t even do without them anymore. This can be quite scary. Try going a week without using a search engine or a maps application.

We can’t paint all algorithms with the same brush. Some guide us from point A to point B, others can detect tumours doctors can’t even see yet, and some try to tempt us to just keep scrolling a little longer. The next time you read something about evil algorithms, remember that most are good and make your life better. They’ll like that.