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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Computers don’t make mistakes?

Search algorithms make us believe that they merely aggregate data and present the most relevant results.

Written by Nishant Shah |
Updated: May 24, 2015 5:00:38 am
Smartphone, Apps, Android, smartphone apps, Google Play, Google Search, technology news Search algorithms make us believe that they merely aggregate data and present the most relevant results.

Four six-year-olds got into an argument. They were playing a word game, where somebody had just played a word which was challenged and it was suggested by an online dictionary that the word was wrong. The player who had formed the word insisted that the word existed. “The app must be wrong,” he said. There were peals of laughter at his conclusion.

“An app can’t be wrong” was the general consensus. “Computers don’t make mistakes. Only people make mistakes,” the group agreed. The debate continued about human mistakes and computer mistakes, till one of them abandoned the word game for a game of chasing each other.

Their conversation is unnervingly like conversations we hear in the adult world. We now firmly believe that if an error happens, it is generally the human at fault because the machines, especially self-learning digital devices, do not make mistakes. However, things were not always the same. I remember, when I was about 13, and getting introduced to formal physics in school, one of the fundamental principles of setting up experiments and lab apparatus was to recognise machine errors. Your devices were never infallible. We were never allowed to trust first results and constantly looked for variables that machine errors produced.

At the same time, I was introduced to computing, where the first programming principle we learned was GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. The computer did not make errors. If you get a wrong answer, it is because you fed in wrong data or set up wrong parameters for calculations. This shift from things as prone to error to a person being behind the mistakes has persisted in our understanding of the digital world. The computer emerges as a mystical black box that hides the fact that the results that these connected devices produce are not just prone to error, but also open to manipulation and control.

Take the internet search engine as an example. Search is the default approach to finding information on Web 2.0.

Search algorithms make us believe that they merely aggregate data and present the most relevant results. However, it will give you auto corrections, auto completes, profile you based on your internet usage, and target advertisements at you. While the search algorithms are fairly tolerant in helping us with our quests, there is an invisible process of censorship that ensures that some information is not available to us. As increasingly, big corporations and service providers share our search results and private data with each other and the governments, it is now known that these companies block information and also trigger alarms based on specific search strings and queries. Our reliance on the internet as a space without errors makes us blind to these errors that are programmed and controlled by those in power.

This is not an argument about whether the internet is good or bad. It is better to think of the internet as an advanced magic 8-ball rather than an all-knowing oracle. Like the kid who couldn’t defend his word, we need to realise that we are constantly compromised in our web practices and also being monitored and punished for them.

The resolution to these problems is going to require a foundational questioning of what our rights are in the digital domain. In the meantime, once in a while it might not be a bad idea to move away from the logic that the app is always right. And if things get too much, we need to make sure that there is a possibility of overthrowing the board and starting a new game where the rules are not defined by invisible entities lurking under our transparent screens.

Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore

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