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In control of your algorithms

by | Oct 3, 2017 | Concepts | 0 comments

584 words | reading time 03:00

Can you please watch Cathy O’Neil‘s TED talk first?

I am a data scientist and so are you.

To perform the simplest task, we all design and run algorithms based on past experiences, improving its outcome by setting a goal and iterating upon it.

We use them to transform, sort or decide variables. In cooking, the recipe; in transportation, the route; in communication, the transcript. We learn and improve, most of the times without realizing any change in execution or improvement, one experiment at a time.

It’s only when you visualize the goal that you get in control. For example, when training, you want to run faster, or lift heavier weights, so you lay a plan based on previous experiences and start executing it towards the goal, adjusting it over time, depending on the success you accomplish. However, most of our activities are mundane and lack that tracking that might allow improvement, when there is room for it.

Just like programmers in charge of the code for a machine to learn and perform a task, we know we are behind the wheel of our own algorithms. Inadvertently, we can also be responsible of algorithms that affect others around us. We must manage those routines in each of three aspects: design, data and goal.

If you are in charge of a magic formula that affects the way others see the world, you are lucky and at the same time utterly responsible of constantly auditing it to make it better, because improvement never ends when it comes to human experience.

Amazon, Google, Instagram, Facebook, despegar.com, Netflix, twitter, Yahoo, metro cuadradoSpotify. They serve us information based on an undisclosed algorithm. They are in charge of the design put in place to pursue our goal: relevance and convenience. However, most of the times we don’t achieve it. Perhaps because we decide the context in which it runs, the data from what it feeds, perpetuating the bubble in which we find the most comfortable, the very same we should constantly be tearing appart to reap superior benefits. It could also be that we are bounded by our own rationality, incapable of consuming the outcome of those algorithms to start detecting any results.

The next time you find yourself using one of the aforementioned services, ask yourself: are the results really relevant to me? Is the goal of my search fulfilled, or is the goal of the service being forced upon my experience? Are the ads served a good fit to my purpose and to the one of the brand paying to reach me? Am I relevant to them, the service and the brand? Is that post really the one I should be seeing, or that movie the one I should also watch, or that song the one I should listen next? How efficient is the experience in terms of time and effort required? Is this all there is? Is this really the best price available? What am I missing?

In a world sailing over an increasingly deeper ocean of data, we all are, to some extent, responsible of how we process it, and of where we go to get information. Alternate facts are like icebergs we should divert at all costs. The wind of biases is always blowing, so we must be alert to steer, correcting course for its effect.

In the algorithm of your breakfast, you could be using more fruit and protein and less carbs. You could be tuning it to run it everyday, without skipping, and at a designated time. It will achieve that goal of well being, having a more active day and, perhaps, a tastier experience. Δ

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