In political terms, 2016 has been a year of uncertainty. Yet, it has also seen the rising dominance of algorithms, complex mathematical calculations that follow a pre-set pattern and are increasingly used in technology designed to predict, control and alter human behaviour.
Algorithms try to use the past as an indicator of the future. As such, they are neutral. They do not have prejudices and are unemotional. But algorithms can be programmed to be biased or unintentional bias can creep into the system. They also allow large corporations to make largely hidden decisions about how they treat consumers and their employees. And they allow government organisations to decide how to distribute services and even justice.
The danger of algorithms being used unfairly or even illegally has led to recent calls by the UK Labour party for greater regulation not just of tech firms but of the algorithms themselves. But what would tighter rules on algorithms actually cover? Is it even possible to regulate such a complex area of technology?
Algorithms are used by governments and corporations alike to try and foresee the future and inform decision making. Google, for example, uses algorithms to auto-fill its search box as you type into it and to rank the websites it lists after you hit the return button, directing you to certain websites over others. Self-driving cars use algorithms to decide their route and speed, and potentially even whom to run over in an emergency situation.
Financial corporations use algorithms to assess your risk profile, to determine whether they should give you a loan, credit card or insurance. If you are lucky enough to be offered one of their products, they will then work out how much you should pay for that product. Employers do the same to select the best candidates for the job and to assess their workers’ productivity and abilities.