Big Data Causing You Big Headaches? Have You Watched The Minority Report?

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Ever wonder why you start getting online ads selling you vacation packages all of a sudden?  Might be because you did a search on AIRBNB or because you were discussing vacation plans on Facebook with your family – it’s all driven by algorithms.  Algorithms are everywhere and are already controlling your life – you just don’t know it yet.  In a recent post by Rana Foroohar in Time, she talks about Weapons of Math Destruction, a book written by Cathy O’Neil whose basic premise is that algorithms are dividing people up into self-contained online communities, they don’t even know they exist within that bubble.

That has some significant, serious and long lasting negative impacts on many people.  Algorithms are used for: grading job performance, hiring/firing teachers, access to credit, insurance premiums, targeted advertising (vacation packages?) etc. etc. etc. Why do you pay higher prices if you are an Apple user?  Because you can – especially if you are already in line to spend $650 so that you don’t have a headphone jack 🙂 .  An algorithm figured that out.  O’Neil points out that algorithms determine that a particular neighborhood should have a lot more police patrolling thus pre-ordaining the life of a young man who may have a petty violation that would have been ignored elsewhere.  Because of an algorithm, he now has a record and all the life limitations that come with it.

Educational institutions are shifting aid to merit based to attract better students to get higher rankings driven by algorithms – leaving those that need the aid the most behind.  For-profit colleges target the neediest amongst us who run up high debt with no return.  Her hypothesis is that this is creating more and more inequality which I will let you judge for yourself but it’s an intriguing hypothesis.

Far more interesting is the intersection with our world.  For example, are you seeing  more and more of this in the Talent Management world?  Many of the recruiting applications utilize them for screening applicants before the hiring manager ever sees a resume – are really good candidates being screened out?  We find that happens many times when placing our candidates with clients.  What kind of algorithms is your risk management software using and are you aware of the parameters it uses?  Can you manipulate those parameters to influence the results?  If you use some kind of RFP solicitation application at the front end of your sourcing process, do the underlying algorithms screen out excellent suppliers.  We opt out of many such opportunities because they utilize applications like that.  Many of the supplier ratings offerings out there depend solely on algorithms to provide those ratings.  Supplier performance measurement applications similarly utilize algorithms for their analytical engines.  None of this means anything bad intrinsically other than ceding control and decision making to algorithms – without even knowing it.  Remember the examples above.  If algorithms have decided what information I’m going to see, then I’ve involuntarily ceded decision making to the algorithm.  Facebook was in trouble recently because algorithms were driving what political stories each user saw.  Google is known for using them to determine each user online experience.  The 2016 presidential elections will be heavily, HEAVILY influenced by algorithms.

The Minority Report was premised on algorithms predicting who amongst us was likely to commit a crime and them intervening before the crime was even committed – just let that sink in for a minute.  You are being punished because an algorithm predicts that you will commit a crime in the future.  It’s a brave new scary world out there indeed and it would behoove us to at least understand how this phenomenon impacts all of us today.

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Dalip Raheja is President and CEO of The Mpower Group (TMG). Dalip has over 30 years of experience managing large organizations and change initiatives. He has worked across the spectrums of supply chain management, strategic sourcing, and management consulting.


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