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Algorithms : is our freedom threatened?

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If you follow the news you may have come across this news : a deep-learning algorithm has defeated the European master of Go. This news was such a milestone in artificial intelligence (AI) that it was featured in the Nature issue on 28 Jan 2016. Big Data scientists believed indeed it would take another 10 years for a computer to beat a human player at Go. The least we can say is that it went much faster than expected. AlphaGo algorithm by DeepMind was the first to achieve that challenge thanks to a combination of “Monte-Carlo tree search with deep neural networks that have been trained by supervised learning”.

Algorithms will become more intelligent than Humans

A few days before the Nature’s announcement, Stephen Hawking predicted on BBC4 that AI may cause the extinction of the Human race, the reason being the capacity of algorithms to reconfigure and adapt themselves quicker than the Human race.

Newest technologies have made it possible for algorithms to learn by themselves and improve their skills quite autonomously.

There is still a long path to prophetical James Cameron’s movie “Terminator” (1984) where AI-based robots became self-aware and started the holocaust.  Yet, this is where technology is heading us too: more autonomy for the machines, and less room for Humans.

Recommendation algorithms limit our freedom

Recommendation engines implemented on websites, in the retail, insurance or banking sectors already reduce the degrees of Human freedom.

Take for instance recommendation engines on YouTube : based on the videos you’ve watched you’ll be recommended a series of other videos of the same genre. Netflix, Pandora do the same and have based their success on those very recommendation algorithms too (read more about the Netflix algorithms in this scientific article).

But more generally algorithms also limit the freedom of employees. In their quest for efficiency and profits, companies have seen Humans as sources of unprofitability and decreased efficiency. The business flair and the human touch have been replaced by algorithms dictating to Humans what they should do. Employees of insurance companies and banks are already in this situation. Algorithms tell them what to sell and when. Whether it is in the customer’s best interest is eventually not the responsibility of the employee anymore.

Algorithms should enrich our lives and not set limits

Whether you’re a consumer of media content or an employee getting algorithm-based instructions, you may expect from algorithms that they add value to your lives. Unfortunately what happens today is pretty much the contrary.

Recommendation engines tend to be used to put people in boxes and maximize profits. Technology is not being harnessed for the Greater Good but to increase profits (selling more) and decrease costs (with less people). As a consequence the human touch is progressively disappearing which not only affects the service quality but also customer satisfaction.

Conclusion

Firms should understand that algorithms are tools and not one-size-fits-all solutions to replace humans.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Pierre-Nicolas est Docteur en Marketing et dirige l'agence d'études de marché IntoTheMinds. Ses domaines de prédilection sont le BigData l'e-commerce, le commerce de proximité, l'HoReCa et la logistique. Il est également chercheur en marketing à l'Université Libre de Bruxelles et sert de coach et formateur à plusieurs organisations et institutions publiques. Il peut être contacté par email, Linkedin ou par téléphone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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