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I., the word itself——has begun to take on an eerie affect.Algorithms, in the popular imagination, are mysterious, powerful entities that stand for all the ways technology and modernity both serve our every desire and threaten the values we hold dear.Facebook’s news feed algorithm can be tweaked to make us happy or sad; it can expose us to new and challenging ideas or insulate us in ideological bubbles.And yet, for all its power, Facebook’s news feed algorithm is surprisingly inelegant, maddeningly mercurial, and stubbornly opaque.
Humans decide what data goes into it, what it can do with that data, and what they want to come out the other end. When it evolves, it’s because a bunch of humans read a bunch of spreadsheets, held a bunch of meetings, ran a bunch of tests, and decided to make it better. That’ll be because another group of humans keeps telling them about all the ways it’s falling short: us.
The news feed algorithm’s outsize influence has given rise to a strand of criticism that treats it as if it possessed a mind of its own—as if it were some runic form of intelligence, loosed on the world to pursue ends beyond the ken of human understanding.
At a time when Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants increasingly filter our choices and guide our decisions through machine-learning software, when tech titans like Elon Musk and scientific laureates like Stephen Hawking are warning of the existential threat posed by A.
The downside: If your data set is large, it’s computationally inefficient and time-consuming.
Facebook, for obvious reasons, does not use bubble sort.
That’s a hard problem, because what’s relevant to you—a post from your childhood friend or from a celebrity you follow—might be utterly irrelevant to me. My brain has taken his input and produced an immediate verbal output, perhaps according to some impish algorithm of its own.