Thursday, May 19, 2016

Garbage in Garbage Out?

In an article today in the NY Times the author comments on the Facebook debacle with its search algorithms. First of all I had Faceboook shortly after it came out and forced by my students at MIT to joining the future. Then after seeing it as a total distraction left several years ago, as I suspect did the students. Today, I, at almost 75, and my granddaughter just 13, see Facebook used only by "old folks", those 50 year olds who insist on telling everyone about their most intimate thoughts.

The Times author does bemoan the neutrality of the algorithm. She states: 

The first step forward is for Facebook, and anyone who uses algorithms in subjective decision making, to drop the pretense that they are neutral. Even Google, whose powerful ranking algorithm can decide the fate of companies, or politicians, by changing search results, defines its search algorithms as “computer programs that look for clues to give you back exactly what you want.” But this is not just about what we want. What we are shown is shaped by these algorithms, which are shaped by what the companies want from us, and there is nothing neutral about that.

Indeed, algorithms are anything but neutral. I recall doing clustering algorithms back in the day to discriminate Soviet subs from whales. No matter, whenever I changed a weighting constant I could change everything. 

You see the "algorithm" may itself be neutral, or at least as neutral as possible but the constants and weights  or how they are derived are not. That is where opinion comes in. And sadly we now know the West Coast bias, a  true bias to the left, controls the world view.

What Facebook hope to achieve in a meeting like this is uncertain. One suspects that not one of the "conservatives" would have a clue about an algorithm, no less understand how bias is inserted.