Algorithmic Power

An algorithm can be defined as a series of steps undertaken in order to solve a particular problem or accomplish a defined outcome.5 Algorithms can be carried out by people, by nature, or by machines. The way you learned to do long division in grade school or the recipe you followed last night to cook dinner are examples of people executing algorithms. You might also say that biologically governed algorithms describe how cells transcribe DNA to RNA and then produce proteins—it’s an information transformation process.6 While algorithms are everywhere around us, the focus of this paper are those algorithms that run on digital computers, since they have the most potential to scale and affect large swaths of people.

Autonomous decision-making is the crux of algorithmic power. Algorithmic decisions can be based on rules about what should happen next in a process, given what’s already happened, or on calculations over massive amounts of data. The rules themselves can be articulated directly by programmers, or be dynamic and flexible based on the data. For instance, machine-learning algorithms enable other algorithms to make smarter decisions based on learned patterns in data. Sometimes, though, the out- comes are important (or messy and uncertain) enough that a human opera- tor makes the final decision in a process. But even in this case the algorithm is biasing the operator, by directing his or her attention to a subset of information or recommended decision. Not all of these decisions are significant of course, but some of them certainly can be.

We can start to assess algorithmic power by thinking about the atomic decisions that algorithms make, including prioritization, classification, association, and filtering. Sometimes these decisions are chained in order to form higher-level decisions and information transformations. For instance, some set of objects might be classified and then subsequently ranked based on their classifications. Or, certain associations to an object could help classify it: Two eyes and a nose associated with a circular blob might help you determine the blob is actually a face. Another composite decision is summarization, which uses prioritization and then filtering operations to consolidate information while maintaining the interpretability of that information. Understanding the elemental decisions that algorithms make, including the compositions of those decisions, can help identify why a particular algorithm might warrant further investigation.

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