How to spot fake news this election

How to spot fake news this election

If only it was this easy.
Georgjmclittle/Shutterstock

Amy Binns, University of Central Lancashire

The 2019 UK election campaign has been particularly dispiriting for anyone who cares about the truth. Even established parties have proven they are not above using tricks to manipulate the news. Meanwhile, politicians are quick to shout “fake news” about anything they disagree with, even accurate stories.

The Conservative Party kicked things off by doctoring a Keir Starmer interview to make him appear to refuse to answer questions. Then a prankster gained thousands of views with a photoshopped Daily Mirror page claiming Jo Swinson shot squirrels for fun.

A tweet by a now-suspended account launched the fake squirrel story, getting less than a thousand shares. But a screenshot was shared on Facebook, where it went viral. Someone else added the story to the semi-professional Medium site, where it was widely shared before being taken down.

Some of this may seem trivial or nonsensical, but even the silliest stories skew the discussion away from rational debate. Jo Swinson was forced to deny shooting squirrels in a television interview, even as the shares racked up across Facebook.

At the other end of the technological spectrum, an astonishingly realistic video by Future Advocacy used an impressionist voiceover artist and real, doctored videos to show Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn endorsing each other as prime minister.

Such fakes are not illegal, although Future Advocacy believes they should be, and some American legislators have moved to ban them in the run up to an election.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives exploited the public’s desire to try and sort fakes from facts by rebranding their press office Twitter account as “UK Factcheck”, mimicking the established independent FullFact.

So, with so much officially sanctioned and well created misleading content there is out there, how can you tell if an online story is actually true?

One simple thing to start with is to ask who the original poster is. Does this person have a history of unusual claims or perhaps this seems to be a newly created profile? Is the website hosting the content slightly unusual, perhaps ending with something other than the standard .co.uk or .com?

Next, look beyond the outrageous headline and read the whole story. The headline can never give the full picture and may just be clickbait. Check all the content. Are there misspellings or poor grammar? Click through on the links in the story – do they back it up?

If pictures are involved, they can be searched for using reverse image search to find the original picture. Does it appear on any reputable site?

Don’t be distracted by official-looking forms or trademarks. Research shows blind people are better at spotting scams because they are not distracted by logos.

How often do you actually check?

All these things are relatively easy to check. But most readers only make these checks if they already suspect the story isn’t true. And herein lies the real problem, not with technological wizardry but confirmation bias – not on your computer but inside your head.

First, study after study shows most people are far more likely to select stories to read that are consistent with their pre-existing beliefs. Reading these stories then entrenches their beliefs further. If a story feeds into an existing set of beliefs, it is far more likely to be accepted without questioning.

To go back to our first example, if you already believe Labour politicians never give a straight answer, you are more likely to click on a doctored video of Keir Starmer looking stumped, headlined “Labour has no plan for Brexit”.

You are more likely to believe it, without considering the source. It is then used as evidence of your original belief, strengthening your view that Labour politicians are untrustworthy.

This matters because it leads to more extreme and entrenched beliefs. Hillary Clinton is not just a politician whom you wouldn’t care to vote for – she is a criminal who should be locked up (or so many Donald Trump supporters believe).

 

What can be done about this? Interestingly, research suggests making news slightly harder to understand may make readers less extreme. This seems to be because readers have to pay closer attention to a “disfluent” text. In engaging their brains, they make better judgements about the content – but the effect only works if the readers are not trying to multitask.

But as websites compete for eyes, few businesses would try to make their content slightly too hard for their readers.

In the end, the best advice may be to stick to reputable news providers, such as the BBC or the Times. For all their faults, they at least have trained, named, accountable professionals with a commitment to honest journalism.


Amy Binns, Senior Lecturer, Journalism and Digital Communication, University of Central Lancashire

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. .

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Economics Nobel 2019: why Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer won

Economics Nobel 2019: why Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer won

Arnab Bhattacharjee, Heriot-Watt University and Mark Schaffer, Heriot-Watt University

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2019 (commonly known as the Nobel Prize for Economics) has been awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Through the award, the Nobel committee recognised both the significance of development economics in the world today and the innovative approaches developed by these three economists.

Global poverty continues to be a massive challenge. The award follows Angus Deaton, who received it in 2015 for his contributions to development economics – the field that studies the causes of global poverty and how best to combat it – particularly, his emphasis on people’s consumption choices and the measurement of well-being, especially the well-being of the poor.

Well-developed theory can highlight what causes poverty and, based on this, suggest policies to combat it. But it cannot tell us exactly how powerful specific policy measures will be in practice. This is precisely where the contributions of Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer lie. The Nobel citation gives several examples of their impact, including how their research has helped education, health and access to credit for many in the developing world, most famously in India and Kenya.

Consider, for example, child mortality and health – issues of immense significance in the developing world. Theory can tell us that women’s empowerment is important for child health and mortality outcomes, but cannot tell us which policy will be most effective in combating this. It could be a focus on educating mothers, or access to healthcare, or electoral representation, or marital age legislation.

Perhaps, more importantly, theory cannot tell us how large and significant the impact will be of these various policies. And this is where the significance of the Nobel Prize this year comes in.

A new, experimental approach

The fundamental contribution of Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer was to develop an experimental approach to development economics. They built a scientific framework and used hard data to identify causes of poverty, estimate the effects of different policies and then evaluate their cost effectiveness. Specifically, they developed randomised control trials (RCTs) to do this. They used these to study different policies in action and to promote those that were most effective.

Starting in the mid-1990s, Kremer and co-authors started a series of RCTs on schooling in Kenya, designing field experiments to evaluate the impact of specific policies on improving outcomes. This approach was revolutionary. The experiments showed that neither more textbooks nor free school meals made any real difference to learning outcomes. Instead, it was the way that teaching was carried out that was the biggest factor.

Studies by Banerjee and Duflo, often together with Kremer and others, followed. They initially focused on education, and then expanded into other areas, including health, credit and agriculture.

Banerjee and Duflo were able to use these studies to explain why some businesses and people in less developed countries do not take advantage of the best available technologies. They highlighted the significance of market imperfections and government failures. By devising policies to specifically address the root of problems, they have helped make possible real contributions to alleviating poverty in these countries.

Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer also took significant steps towards applying specific findings to different contexts. This brought economic theories of incentives closer to direct application, fundamentally transforming the practice of development economics, by using practical, verifiable and quantitative knowledge to isolate causes of poverty and to devise adequate policy based on behavioural responses.

The impact of these developments upon real world development outcomes are immensely significant. Their work, and substantial amounts of research that followed it, established evidence on fighting poverty in many developing countries. And they are continuously expanding their horizon of contributions, which now also includes climate and environmental policy, social networks and cognitive science.

Diversity issues

The 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics is also significant for reasons of inclusivity. The impact generated by Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer’s approach has come about very quickly – actually, in less than two decades. This explains why, at the age of 47, Duflo is the youngest-ever recipient of the economics Nobel. She is also only the second woman to be awarded the prize (after Elinor Ostrom in 2009). Banerjee, who is also her husband, is the third ever non-white recipient (after Arthur Lewis in 1979 and Amartya Sen in 1998).

In a recent issue of the journal Nature, Göran Hansson, head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that awards the Nobel, highlighted measures to address the imbalance in gender and ethnicity among winners. He said “we are making sure to elect women to the academy” from which the prize-awarding committees for the chemistry, physics and economics Nobels are drawn.

The pipeline to this achievement is important. The first woman to win the John Bates Clark Medal for top economists under 40, an important indicator of who will be awarded the economics Nobel in the future, Susan Athey, only did so in 2007. Esther Duflo was the second winner in 2010. Since then, women winners of the Clark medal have been more frequent. Of course, award decisions are made strictly on significance of contributions. But, based on this evidence, perhaps Athey, Amy Finkelstein (who won the medal in 2012) and Emi Nakamura (who won it in 2019) will not be far behind.

Arnab Bhattacharjee, Professor of Economics, Heriot-Watt University and Mark Schaffer, Professor of Economics, Heriot-Watt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Libra: Facebook’s cryptocurrency will not help the billions of people currently excluded from banks

Libra: Facebook’s cryptocurrency will not help the billions of people currently excluded from banks

‘It’ll never catch on!’
NIKS ADS
 

Kamini Gupta, King’s College London

When Facebook unveiled its new digital currency libra, it explicitly said the initiative was intended to address the problems faced by the world’s unbanked: the 1.7 billion people without a bank account. As well as facing inconvenience, these people generally pay over the odds for financial services like bank transfers or overdrafts.

This is a pretty big potential market for Facebook so it’s not surprising that it would target the opportunity. But could libra really transform access to financial services for those who are currently excluded? There are reasons to raise serious doubts.

Across the world, the main reasons people give for not holding a bank account is that they don’t have enough money, don’t see the need for an account, find it too expensive, or another family member already has one. Not having the right documentation is also a barrier, as is distrust in the financial system.

Mo’ money mo’ problems.
Zilverlight

But the specific barriers to financial inclusion vary significantly by region and are usually a combination of social and economic factors. For instance, while cost is a big barrier in Latin America, lack of documentation is the big issue in Zimbabwe and Philippines.

This makes it difficult for any one intervention to be a solution to this huge group of people. Worryingly, the Facebook “white paper” that outlines libra does not really engage with these problems or say how it plans to overcome them.

Trust and financial literacy

People’s trust in institutions can be very important in influencing the extent to which they use their services, as I have found from my own work into microfinance, which I have presented at conferences but is yet to be published in an academic journal.

I have found that people are more likely to choose something familiar over something novel. Since libra will be a new currency relying on digital wallets and built on blockchain online ledger technology, it is not short of novelties. Inspiring trust is therefore likely to be a major challenge.

And simply signing someone up to an account – be it a bank account or a digital wallet – is only part of the financial inclusion challenge.

In India, 190m people still do not have bank accounts, but the percentage of the population who do have accounts has steadily increased to 80%. In 2017, however, nearly half of all bank accounts in the country had seen no activity over the whole of the previous year. One of the reasons is financial literacy, which remains low both in India and many other developing countries. Many people in India have said they are simply unaware of the different benefits of a bank account, such as overdraft facilities or credit schemes.

As many as 62% of the world’s unbanked have received only a primary-level education or less, and in poorer countries the proportion is almost certainly going to be higher. Expecting such people to make complex currency conversions into a new virtual currency is asking a lot.

Services rendered.
Riccardo Mayer

In the first place, there is a need for financial literacy measures and initiatives aimed at motivating them to use the services available. Without this additional support, there is a strong risk that Facebook will boast large numbers of sign-ups but very low rates of transactions from the people who are most in need.

Big world

Only a few days since Facebook’s announcement, libra has faced strong pushback from regulators and policymakers around the world. There is much concern about this proposed shift of power from central banks to a private corporation.

But aside from questions about the ethics of data privacy or the creation of a supranational currency, libra faces an important practical question. On the one hand, it is not clear how a model such as libra, where there will presumably be little or no physical presence in many countries, would interact with and adhere to local regulations.

On the other hand, if it does conform to the local standards of each country, it is unclear how it will overcome challenges like signing people up and strict documentation requirements. Will it really be able to serve the unbanked better than local providers who are used to the challenges in that specific market already?

Entrepreneurs and businesses can either start with a problem and think of the best way to solve it; or they can start with a solution and find the biggest and best problem it might solve. I’m not convinced that libra is a good move in either direction. Facebook either has a huge amount of work to do to adapt its solution to fit the problem better, or it needs to redefine the problem that it is trying to fix.The Conversation

Kamini Gupta, Lecturer in International Business and Comparative Management, King’s College London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license..

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China’s ‘Silk Road urbanism’ is changing cities from London to Kampala – can locals keep control?

China’s ‘Silk Road urbanism’ is changing cities from London to Kampala – can locals keep control?

File 20190327 139380 1qnb43p.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
View of Kampala.
Shutterstock.

Jonathan Silver, University of Sheffield and Alan Wiig, University of Massachusetts Boston

A massive redevelopment of the old Royal Albert Dock in East London is transforming the derelict waterfront to a gleaming business district. The project, which started in June 2017, will create 325,000 square metres of prime office space – a “city within a city”, as it has been dubbed – for Asian finance and tech firms. Then, in 2018, authorities in Kampala, Uganda celebrated as a ferry on Lake Victoria was unloaded with goods from the Indian Ocean, onto a rail service into the city. This transport hub was the final part of the Central Corridor project, aimed at connecting landlocked Uganda to Dar es Salaam and the Indian Ocean.

Both of these huge projects are part of the US$1 trillion global infrastructure investment that is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s ambition to reshape the world economy has sparked massive infrastructure projects spanning all the way from Western Europe to East Africa, and beyond. The nation is engaging in what we, in our research, call “Silk Road urbanism” – reimagining the historic transcontinental trade route as a global project, to bring the cities of South Asia, East Africa, Europe and South America into the orbit of the Chinese economy.

By forging infrastructure within and between key cities, China is changing the everyday lives of millions across the world. The initiative has kicked off a new development race between the US and China, to connect the planet by financing large-scale infrastructure projects.

Silk Road urbanism

Amid this geopolitical competition, Silk Road urbanism will exert significant influence over how cities develop into the 21st century. As the transcontinental trade established by the ancient Silk Road once led to the rise of cities such as Herat (in modern-day Afghanistan) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), so the BRI will bring new investment, technology, infrastructure and trade relations to certain cities around the globe.

The BRI is still in its early stages – and much remains to be understood about the impact it will have on the urban landscape. What is known, however, is that the project will transform the world system of cities on a scale not witnessed since the end of the Cold War.

Silk Road urbanism is highly selective in its deployment across urban space. It prioritises the far over the near and is orientated toward global trade and the connections and circulations of finance, materials, goods and knowledge. Because of this, the BRI should not only be considered in terms of its investment in infrastructure.

It will also have significance for city dwellers – and urban authorities must recognise the challenges of the BRI and navigate the need to secure investment for infrastructure while ensuring that citizens maintain their right to the city, and their power to shape their own future.

London calling

Developments in both London and Kampala highlight these challenges. In London, Chinese developer Advanced Business Park is rebuilding Royal Albert Dock – now named the Asian Business Port – on a site it acquired for £1 billion in 2013 in a much-criticised deal by former London mayor Boris Johnson. The development is projected to be worth £6 billion to the city’s economy by completion.

Formerly Royal Albert Dock, now Asian Business Port.
Google Earth.

But the development stands in sharp contrast with the surrounding East London communities, which still suffer poverty and deprivation. The challenge will be for authorities and developers to establish trusting relations through open dialogue with locals, in a context where large urban redevelopments such as the 2012 Olympic Park have historically brought few benefits.

The creation of a third financial district, alongside Canary Wharf and the City of London, may benefit the economy. But it remains to be seen if this project will provide opportunities for, and investment in, the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Kampala’s corridor

The Ugandan capital Kampala is part of the Central Corridor project to improve transport and infrastructure links across five countries including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The project is financed through the government of Tanzania via a US$7.6 billion loan from the Chinese bank Exim.

Under construction: the Chinese-funded Entebbe-Kampala Expressway.
Dylan Patterson/Flickr., CC BY-SA

The growth of the new transport and cargo hub at Port Bell, on the outskirts of Kampala, with standardised technologies and facilities for international trade, is the crucial underlying component for Uganda’s Vision2040.

This national plan alone encompasses a further ten new cities, four international airports, national high speed rail and a multi-lane road network. But as these urban transformations unfold, residents already living precariously in Kampala have faced further uncertainty over their livelihoods, shelter and place in the city.

During fieldwork for our ongoing research into Silk Road urbanism in 2017, we witnessed the demolition of hundreds of informal homes and businesses in the popular Namuwongo district, as a zone was cleared 30 metres either side of a rehabilitated railway track for the Central Corridor required.

As Silk Road urbanism proceeds to reshape global infrastructure and city spaces, existing populations will experience displacement in ways that are likely to reinforce existing inequalities. It is vital people are given democratic involvement in shaping the outcomes.The Conversation

Jonathan Silver, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sheffield and Alan Wiig, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Community Development, University of Massachusetts Boston

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Brexit with brie? Common Market 2.0 proposal explained – through the import and export of cheese

Brexit with brie? Common Market 2.0 proposal explained – through the import and export of cheese

Stuart MacLennan, Coventry University

Amid the ongoing Brexit standoff, one proposal that has been gaining traction and which MPs will now vote on in a series of indicative votes in parliament, has been the cross-party plan for a “Common Market 2.0”.

Superficially, the plan resolves a number of the challenges posed by Brexit, including the thorny issue of the Irish border and the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. But the plan – also known as Norway+ because it has similarities with the EU’s relationship with Norway – involves the UK compromising on a number of its current red lines, while at the same time requiring a fundamental revision of one of the EU’s existing free trade agreements.

One way to understand how a Common Market 2.0 might work – and how it would differ to other options on the table – is to look at one type of good that might move between countries. Say, cheese.

First, it’s important to establish the difference between a free trade agreement and a customs union. As a rule, tariffs are applied on the basis of where goods originate from. The EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, for example, means that you can import Canadian Avonlea cheese into the EU free from tariffs. However, the EU’s lack of an free trade agreement with the US means that American Monterey Jack cheese is charged at €221.20/100kg. If you first export Monterey Jack to Canada, and then from Canada to the EU it will still be chargeable, as the goods originated in the US. Under a free trade agreement, checks on where good originated – known as “rules of origin” checks – are still required.

A customs union is a more advanced form of trading relationship, where you agree not only to remove any tariffs on each other’s goods, but also to apply the same tariffs on goods originating from third countries. This means, for the purposes of the EU customs union, that Monterey Jack will be treated the same whether it is imported to Belgium or Bulgaria. Within a customs union it’s unnecessary to check from where goods originate when they cross a border as they will already have received the appropriate customs treatment.

Back to the 1990s

The Common Market 2.0 idea is an attempt to reverse engineer the previous 25 years of EU integration, reverting the UK’s participation in the EU to the position before the Maastricht Treaty was agreed in 1992.

Under the plan, the UK would rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of which it was a founding member prior to joining the European Economic Community. The UK would also accede to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement with the EU. This is a two-pillared agreement between the EU, as well as three of the four EFTA members: Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, but not Switzerland. This is often known as the “Norway model”.

Under Common Market 2.0, the UK would be the only state outside of the EU to participate in both the EU customs union and the single market. The lack of a red line bisecting Ireland is the reason why a customs union is so attractive.
Dr Stuart MacLennan

Such an approach would result in the UK adopting EU-EEA measures relating to the internal market, including the free movement of goods and services, and competition law. But the UK would no longer be subject to the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU, which would be replaced by the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court.

Under this approach, regulatory alignment is all but guaranteed, as standards would ultimately be agreed by the EU and EEA (of which the UK would be a member) – meaning that all cheese capable of being sold in the EU, be that French brie or Dutch edam, ought to be capable of being sold in the UK and vice versa.

What moves the Common Market 2.0 proposal beyond simply replicating the Norway model, however, is that it also involves the UK entering a customs union directly with the EU, thereby removing the need for rules of origin checks on the Irish border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Checks on cheese moving between Norway and Sweden are rare – but they do happen. By entering into a customs union with the EU such checks along the Northern Irish border would never be necessary.




Read more:
Brexit: why was the Irish border ‘backstop’ so crucial to Brexit deal defeat?


The major stumbling block with Common Market 2.0, however, is that under the EFTA agreement it’s not currently possible for member states to enter into a customs union with other states – whether the EU or otherwise. So Norway cannot enter into a customs union directly with the EU, or the US, for example. If the UK were to seek this, it would require special treatment not only by the EU, but by EFTA as well – the political difficulties of which have been largely overlooked.

Free movement question

The Common Market 2.0 arrangement would also, controversially for many, involve the UK continuing with the free movement of persons. The key piece of legislation providing free movement rights for EU and EEA citizens – directive 2004/38 – was incorporated into EEA law in 2007.

One saving grace for the UK might be the joint declaration attached to that 2007 EEA decision that it cannot be the basis for the creation of political rights, and that the directive does not impinge upon immigration policy. This reflects the fact that the primary focus of EEA law is on economically active migrants, rather than EU citizens.



Read more:
Brexit: a Norwegian view on the Norway-plus model and why it wouldn’t be easy for the UK


The Common Market 2.0 approach is therefore unlikely to be viable. Not only would it enrage the right wing of the Conservative Party, it would require agreement from the EU, the EEA and Switzerland. Given the difficulties the UK has had agreeing a deal with one trading bloc, trying to win over three – the EU, the EEA, and EFTA, as well a domestic audience – looks near-impossible.The Conversation

Stuart MacLennan, Senior Lecturer in Law, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license..

Algorithms have already taken over human decision making

Algorithms have already taken over human decision making

Dionysios Demetis, University of Hull

I can still recall my surprise when a book by evolutionary biologist Peter Lawrence entitled “The making of a fly” came to be priced on Amazon at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). While my colleagues around the world must have become rather depressed that an academic book could achieve such a feat, the steep price was actually the result of algorithms feeding off each other and spiralling out of control. It turns out, it wasn’t just sales staff being creative: algorithms were calling the shots.

This eye-catching example was spotted and corrected. But what if such algorithmic interference happens all the time, including in ways we don’t even notice? If our reality is becoming increasingly constructed by algorithms, where does this leave us humans?

Inspired by such examples, my colleague Prof Allen Lee and I recently set out to explore the deeper effects of algorithmic technology in a paper in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems. Our exploration led us to the conclusion that, over time, the roles of information technology and humans have been reversed. In the past, we humans used technology as a tool. Now, technology has advanced to the point where it is using and even controlling us.

We humans are not merely cut off from the decisions that machines are making for us but deeply affected by them in unpredictable ways. Instead of being central to the system of decisions that affects us, we are cast out in to its environment. We have progressively restricted our own decision-making capacity and allowed algorithms to take over. We have become artificial humans, or human artefacts, that are created, shaped and used by the technology.

Examples abound. In law, legal analysts are gradually being replaced by artificial intelligence, meaning the successful defence or prosecution of a case can rely partly on algorithms. Software has even been allowed to predict future criminals, ultimately controlling human freedom by shaping how parole is denied or granted to prisoners. In this way, the minds of judges are being shaped by decision-making mechanisms they cannot understand because of how complex the process is and how much data it involves.

In the job market, excessive reliance on technology has led some of the world’s biggest companies to filter CVs through software, meaning human recruiters will never even glance at some potential candidates’ details. Not only does this put people’s livelihoods at the mercy of machines, it can also build in hiring biases that the company had no desire to implement, as happened with Amazon.

In news, what’s known as automated sentiment analysis analyses positive and negative opinions about companies based on different web sources. In turn, these are being used by trading algorithms that make automated financial decisions, without humans having to actually read the news.

Unintended consequences

In fact, algorithms operating without human intervention now play a significant role in financial markets. For example, 85% of all trading in the foreign exchange markets is conducted by algorithms alone. The growing algorithmic arms race to develop ever more complex systems to compete in these markets means huge sums of money are being allocated according to the decisions of machines.

On a small scale, the people and companies that create these algorithms are able to affect what they do and how they do it. But because much of artificial intelligence involves programming software to figure out how to complete a task by itself, we often don’t know exactly what is behind the decision-making. As with all technology, this can lead to unintended consequences that may go far beyond anything the designers ever envisaged.

Take the 2010 “Flash Crash” of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index. The action of algorithms helped create the index’s single biggest decline in its history, wiping nearly 9% off its value in minutes (although it regained most of this by the end of the day). A five-month investigation could only suggest what sparked the downturn (and various other theories have been proposed).

But the algorithms that amplified the initial problems didn’t make a mistake. There wasn’t a bug in the programming. The behaviour emerged from the interaction of millions of algorithmic decisions playing off each other in unpredictable ways, following their own logic in a way that created a downward spiral for the market.

The conditions that made this possible occurred because, over the years, the people running the trading system had come to see human decisions as an obstacle to market efficiency. Back in 1987 when the US stock market fell by 22.61%, some Wall Street brokers simply stopped picking up their phones to avoid receiving their customers’ orders to sell stocks. This started a process that, as author Michael Lewis put it in his book Flash Boys, “has ended with computers entirely replacing the people”.

The financial world has invested millions in superfast cables and microwave communications to shave just milliseconds off the rate at which algorithms can transmit their instructions. When speed is so important, a human being that requires a massive 215 milliseconds to click a button is almost completely redundant. Our only remaining purpose is to reconfigure the algorithms each time the system of technological decisions fails.

As new boundaries are carved between humans and technology, we need to think carefully about where our extreme reliance on software is taking us. As human decisions are substituted by algorithmic ones, and we become tools whose lives are shaped by machines and their unintended consequences, we are setting ourselves up for technological domination. We need to decide, while we still can, what this means for us both as individuals and as a society.The Conversation

Dionysios Demetis, Lecturer in Management Systems, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.