If you wire a rat’s brain in such a way that every time he pushes a button he receives a pleasurable sensation, he’ll push that button until he dies. At the expense of eating, drinking and everything else that makes life worth living. Just pushing that button, over and over again, until he perishes.
This, in a nutshell, is how algorithmic thinking works in practice. And their liberal use is starting to affect our society.
We’ve already discussed how algorithms think, how they’re created by humans, how they can be flawed and how you can outsmart them. But what if you don’t want to? What if you want to lay back and accept the almighty algorithm as your lord and savior and heed it’s every word? That’s when things get messy.
The endless march of optimization wants to amalgamate the world’s information, guess your desires and shorten the route you take to get pleasure at the expense of all else. It’s how the Facebook news feed works. It’s how Google search results work. It’s how Pandora and Amazon recommendations work. It will be how the world works, if the robots have their say.
And that may be the end of curiosity, ambition and the human independent thought experiment. Allow me to explain.
The Facebook News Feed as the Future
I want to take one very specific, very visible algorithm and break it down as an example of all. You know the Facebook news feed. You’ve probably visited it a few times today. It’s filled with a bunch of things your friends and followed pages share. But your news feed isn’t the same as any other news feed.
Facebook amalgamates all the data of everything you do on the platform (and in some cases, things you do while just logged into it) and tailors your experience. Every time you click a link, like a status, share keywords or friend someone goes into that algorithmic mix. Facebook uses that data as a proxy for your interest in a given person or topic. Then, based on the interest you’ve expressed previously, it formulates your news feed. The things it thinks you will like most show up at the top, with those things that are less likely to generate your interest show up later or don’t show up at all.
At its best, this application of algorithmic thinking makes Facebook more convenient and enjoyable. After all, it’s nothing but a stream of things you enjoy. It also creates more data for a company like Facebook, which is in its best interest if it wants to keep the algorithm relevant.
When you take this strategy too far, though, you end up with Red Feeds and Blue Feeds which entirely crowd out those things you don’t like in favor of the things you do, blinding you to the world around you which may contain things that you don’t like. Furthermore, since all algorithms look back at previous data to infer future decisions, the likelihood of your own personal growth and thought evolution decreases significantly. Your choices are siloed by what you’ve chosen before. New options aren’t considered.
When Machines Learn Faster Than You Do
What’s really troubling about this trend is the seemingly inevitable end. When you’re not challenged in your thinking you stop thinking critically. You accept what’s in the feed because it feels good, as opposed to thinking and considering new thoughts that may not fit within your algorithmically chosen news. Since everything you want is right there, independent thought dies. The robot does your thinking for you.
All of this is happening when today’s algorithms will be considered primitive in a few years. That’s because lots of very smart people, especially in marketing technology, are focused on improving artificial intelligence and machine learning. The pace of this algorithmic thinking will undoubtedly accelerate. In the near future, robots could appear just as smart or smarter than us.
Think about Amazon sending you and charging you for products before you run out. Or Facebook adding friends to your list with which you’ve been pictured. Decisions made for you automatically based on decisions you’ve made in the past. You don’t do anything, just sit back and enjoy. We’re not there yet, but we’re trying.
If that happens, then what? Will there be room for the new? Why bother doing anything novel or inventive or remotely interesting if our future actions are dictated entirely by our past? Do we just press the button until we die? I sure hope not.
What You Can Do to Combat Algorithmic Thinking
The future doesn’t have to be dystopian. So long as we collectively agree to go outside our comfort zones occasionally and interact with the world as it exists, not as it’s constructed online. Accept reality as more than what the robots believe it should be to you.
Remember, the data that goes into any of this algorithmic thinking is yours. You control how the automated world sees you. Be careful about your digital footprint. Maintain an open, inquisitive mind, explore new things and always seek the truth, and you can avoid living in a world shaped by machine perception.
We’re not obsolete yet. Let’s keep it that way.