3 months, 1 day ago

The Road Less Travelled

Link: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Soapbox/~3/Kvr7vxa7JYA/the-road-less-travelled.html

Are algorithms trustworthy, asks @NizanGP.

“Many of us routinely – and even blindly – rely on the advice of algorithms in all aspects of our lives, from choosing the fastest route to the airport to deciding how to invest our retirement savings. But should we trust them as much as we do?”

Dr Packin’s main point is about the fallibility of algorithms, and the excessive confidence people place in them. @AnnCavoukian reinforces this point.

But there is another reason to be wary of the advice of the algorithm, summed up by the question: Whom does the algorithm serve?

Because the algorithm is not working for you alone. There are many people trying to get to the airport, and if they all use the same route they may all miss their flights. If the algorithm is any good, it will be advising different people to use different routes. (Most well-planned cities have more than one route to the airport, to avoid a single point of failure.) So how can you trust the algorithm to give you the fastest route? However much you may be paying for the navigation service (either directly, or bundled into the cost of the car/device), someone else may be paying a lot more. For the road less travelled.

The algorithm-makers may also try to monetize the destinations. If a particular road is used for getting to a sports venue as well as the airport, then the two destinations can be invited to bid to get the “best” routes for their customers – or perhaps for themselves. (“Best” may not mean fastest – it could mean the most predictable. And the venue may be ambivalent about this – the more unpredictable the journey, the more people will arrive early to be on the safe side, spreading the load on the services as well as spending more on parking and refreshments.)

In general, the algorithm is juggling the interests of many different stakeholders, and we may assume that this is designed to optimize the commercial returns to the algorithm-makers.

The same is obviously true of investment advice. The best time to buy a stock is just before everyone else buys, and the best time to sell a stock is just after everyone else buys. Which means that there are massive opportunities for unethical behaviour when advising people where / when to invest their retirement savings, and it would be optimistic to assume that the people programming the algorithms are immune from this temptation, or that regulators are able to protect investors properly.

And that’s before we start worrying about the algorithms being manipulated by hostile agents …

So remember the Weasley Doctrine: “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”


Nizan Geslevich Packin, Why Investors Should Be Wary of Automated Advice (Wall Street Journal, 14 June 2019)

Dozens of drivers get stuck in mud after Google Maps reroutes them into empty field (ABC7 New York, 26 June 2019) HT @jonerp

Related posts: Towards Chatbot Ethics (May 2019), Whom does the technology serve? (May 2019), Robust Against Manipulation (July 2019)

Updated 27 July 2019