Hamilton: The nightmare of living algorithms
July 26, 2017
In Miss Tarpley's ninth-grade algebra class, this survivor does not recall Miss Tarpley using the word "algorithm." In fact, and until recently, I thought Algorithms referred to a rock band led by a former U.S. vice president.
For sure, Miss Tarpley taught us about equations which she insisted be kept in balance and even expanded. But once you started expanding equations, they, like zombies, would take on a "life" of their own, running clear off the chalk board, across the wall, and end up out in the hall at an enormous expense of caulk which someone who threw spit balls in class had to stay after school and clean up.
Today, those of us who use Internet search engines and news-gathering websites face a threat much greater than Miss Tarpley's algebraic equations. With almost every stroke we make on our computer keyboards, we attract the attention of one or more or even hundreds of algorithms lying in wait to record our interests, our likes, and our dislikes.
Let's say you buy a circular saw on Amazon.com. Almost immediately, you will be informed about accessories to go with your saw. You will also be reminded of your previous searches for other items. That is a rather benign and even helpful use of algorithms.
Let’s say you buy a circular saw on Amazon.com. Almost immediately, you will be informed about accessories to go with your saw. You will also be reminded of your previous searches for other items. That is a rather benign and even helpful use of algorithms.
But what if you are a writer of espionage novels and you do Internet research using words related to that particular genre? Certain key terms, such as bomb-making, are of interest to those whose job it is to protect us from the Islamic terrorists and others. Searching certain words could lead to an unpleasant visit from the FBI. On a lighter note, consider the joke about the man who dialed a suicide hot line and was transferred to a call center in Pakistan. After explaining his intention to take his own life, the guy in Pakistan got excited and asked, "Can you drive a truck?"
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Seriously, some packages of algorithms can be used to predict future events such as when and where crimes are likely to occur in urban areas. A package of algorithms called: Criminal Reduction Utilizing Statistical History (CRUSH) combines crime statistics with outside temperature/humidity and housing area maps to identify crime "hot spots."
On Aug. 4, 2005, the Memphis police, directed by CRUSH, deployed in certain areas over a three-day period, making 1,200 arrests, and achieving a 25 percent reduction in crime. According to University of Memphis Professor Richard Janikowski, "It is putting the right people in the right places on the right day at the right time." But not everyone is a fan of CRUSH; in particular, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
By the way, some algorithms talk to each other. So, do not be surprised after you have expressed an interest in something or subject on one website when the next website you visit confronts you with advertisements related to your visit at the previous website. And be aware those devices such as Amazon's Alexa are always recording what you say to "her." Finally, if you are reading this column online, some algorithm may have brought this column to your attention. Some algorithms are more discerning than others.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame, and is a recipient of the University of Nebraska 2015 Alumni Achievement Award. He was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University. For more, see: http://www.central-view.com.