All hail the mighty algorithm! We are are destined to die salute thee!
Twice in the last week. First, I went to the doctor, for a trivial reason (renew a blood pressure prescription). He also ordered up a routine blood panel. Then he got all excited and started describing how, at my age and with the blood pressure situation, I was a candidate for statins, based on a couple of numbers, which was how they used to decide and that resulted in over prescription, which the drug companies loved, but now, we have an ALGORITHM, and you take all the results of the blood panel, the blood pressure numbers, and a couple of other things and just plug the numbers into the ALGORITHM, and that determines whether I’m in the roughly seven and half percent of the population in my age bracket that should be on statins as a precautionary measure.
It did not appear to bother him at all that the ALGORITHM had displaced his professional judgment, and converted him from the decision maker to a conveyor of decisions. He seemed happy to be able to deliver what he felt was an improved quality of care to his patients. He’s a good guy, a good doctor, and old enough to have outgrown his God complex and simple faith in Heroic Intervention.
Then I got into a conversation with an Art Professional (I don’t know what to call her, she advises the wealthy who collect contemporary art). She was decrying the loss of passion for art among the collecting classes and how an investment mindset had come to predominate. In certain respects, and at elevated levels, art is merely another asset class. Of course this has been going on for a while, ever since banks started lending against the stuff and art collections started being used as chits in estate planning. But this woman, fresh from the gilded trenches of galleries and auction houses, wanted to grouse, and I was happy to accommodate her. The latest outrage is, you got it, ALGORITHMS. ‘Collectors’ are making acquisition, divestiture and diversification decisions, used the same processes that hedge fund managers, trading desks and that ilk have developed to skim all the cream out of market fluctuations before any of it gets to retail. Perhaps this is to be expected, as so many collectors are in financial services for a day job.
This woman was not so accepting of the ALGORITHM as the doctor. Candidly, I think she has a point in her field. In the world of art, I suspect there are too many endogenous shocks to bet the ranch on a trading algorithm. Algorithms perform best in self-contained systems where, in effect, they arbitrage quantifiable discrepancies, allocate quantifiable resources to defined processes with measurable outcomes, etc. But, as for figuring out whether Bollywood or Chinese cinema will someday displace Hollywood in global markets, your guess is as good as any algorithm.
But the faith in the almighty ALGORITHM does appear to be growing. Colloquially, people refer to ‘black box’ decision making. Nobody knows what’s in the black box. Only a small priesthood can decipher the algorithm.
But the social truth is, the algorithm decides, then its servants execute. And given the quality of human decision making coming out of Washington in recent weeks, the mess humans have made of the Middle East in recent decades, the rise of non-quantifiable religious fundamentalism and xenophobic nationalism around the world (well, to be fair, in Europe, the United States and the Middle East), etc., etc. perhaps decision by machine/rule by algorithm has a certain initial attraction.
Leaving open the question of who writes the algorithm? Or, provides the initial programming instructions that send the AI development down some certain path . . .