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Let's blame the algorithm!

Sudhanshu Singh Senior Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Analytics & Research
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October 24, 2016 -  Ever wondered who to blame for your over-indulgence with the online world, when you are being despised by your dear ones for the increasing addiction? Anyone but YOU! Let me help you overcome that guilt by probing into a few aspects of your everyday life.

  • Does the shopping app on your phone offer you items and goods based on your preferences and interests, or offer similar items that you had viewed in a hurry and could not purchase during your last login?
  • Do you think your favorite music and video apps understand your mood and choices and offer playlists of your interest instead of swarming you with all the available songs and videos?
  • And what about the news feed suggestions on your social media wall? Does it suggest news, videos, and links that you are generally interested in?

Doesn't this happen to you all the time? How do the apps identify your interests and preferences? The credit here goes to big data-infused algorithms, which play a huge role in targeted marketing, advertisements, content recommendation, or providing that customized experience for almost every interaction with the online world. The power of algorithms is everywhere to experience—job hunting, online shopping, dating, or healthcare. Algorithms are not just affecting the personal experience of end users, they are also changing the way businesses run.

So what exactly are these algorithms?

Well, to make it very clear, algorithms are not new to computer geeks and programmers. An algorithm is a series of process steps that are used by computer applications to perform certain problem-solving operations. The process steps are generally instructions for the computer as to what is to be done with the given information. The power and benefits of algorithms were envisioned decades ago and have been proven with the success of Google and its PageRank algorithm. Not just Google, but many other businesses also owe their success to algorithms.

Despite the algorithms' benefits, their widespread use in our everyday lives, and their role in sifting through huge volumes of data, we are still wary of their power. There are concerns regarding their appropriateness and the lack of human touch in certain situations. There is something intimidating about the efficiency, scalability, and accuracy delivered by algorithms. 

And yet the seeds of this sentiment are not new. Man vs. Machine—this debate has always been there, for ages, perhaps ever since the Industrial Revolution, when the Luddites, a group of English textile workers, engaged in violently breaking the machines because they feared were taking their jobs and livelihoods. In reality, however, more jobs got created!

Our generation is quite special. We have witnessed technological advances happening at a frantic pace. We have evolved from cassettes, to floppy disks, to external storage, to cloud computing. What many of us fantasized about as kids while watching Star Trek is now a reality: robotics, virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, predictive analytics, and algorithms are not just terms in tech books, but have practical uses all around us. For instance, Deep Knowledge Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Hong Kong, recently appointed a robot called VITAL to its board of directors —with the same voting rights and responsibilities as any other director!

Or we might soon see Demo BOT and Repub BOT fighting for the 2024 presidential elections in the US, or a ROBO, instead of NaMo, as India's PM.

I am being quite serious when I say this, but two points should be noted here. First, there is no end to technological advances and innovations. Second, is it really human vs. machines—the one against the other? We'll discuss this in the second part of the blog.

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