You probably use technologies that are powered by algorithms every day. Algorithms can add a new level of intelligence to many of the products and services we use. Northeastern University‘s computer science professor Christo Wilson wants to make people aware of how algorithms work while getting the companies that use them to be more open about and accountable for how they work. Some of the world’s largest companies owe their success to algorithms. They are hidden within almost every service you use daily, from Siri to Spotify.
Among Wilson’s findings was a glitch in the algorithm of the ride-hailing company Uber that caused some customers to be incorrectly charged higher prices than others. He disproved the theory that Google’s search engine creates partisan “filter bubbles” in which people only receive search results that reinforce their pre-existing biases and beliefs. And he uncovered that Amazon and travel websites sometimes feature more prominently products and fares with higher prices than those that present better deals for consumers.
He points out that every website, every app—they have huge amounts of data about us, and they use that to shape our experiences. Sometimes this is totally fine. We love it when Spotify recommends cool stuff to us. But in many scenarios, these kinds of suggestions can be troubling.
Wilson said that his field of study, which is called algorithm auditing, emerged over the past decade, and that its importance will continue to grow. He also said that his work is centered on critiquing the role of technological systems in society, and hopes that he will be able to continue raising awareness of these issues and promote accountability in the tech industry.