A world run on algorithms?

In the latest FutureScape brief from the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative (SFI) at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, SFI’s Senior Fellow for Innovation and Global Trends, Banning Garrett, assesses how algorithms now run much of our lives and in the future will be increasingly ubiquitous in ever more aspects of our personal and work life. Mostly without our awareness, algorithms are the guts of software that governs the operation of every digital devices, from modern airplanes and the electric grid system to our laptops, tablets and smartphones.

This brief outlines that algorithms are also the key to big data analytics that are used to mine and exploit the data about us that is collected and stored daily in ever increasing quantities by business and government, including the National Security Administration. They will increasingly shape our choices and delineate our options, from the books recommended by Amazon and the movies by Netflix to the “matches” we find on dating cites. Algorithms making decisions without human intervention such as Wall Street trades leading to financial meltdowns or unintended bidding wars. Algorithms making spurious “correlations” can cast suspicion on innocent people and even lead to erroneous drone strikes against civilians. Failure or hacking of algorithms could put key systems in danger and algorithms are taking an increasing number of jobs, replacing lawyers, doctors, drivers, writers and musicians. But we should not lose sight of the huge benefits of algorithms, not only in running our basic systems but in pushing the frontiers of science, especially in understanding our natural environment, improving our health, making our cities more energy and resource efficient, increasing access to knowledge and education, widening our personal networks, and enhancing productivity.