You're Fired (in 2022)!” from Steve Goodman caught my attention a few weeks ago. Steve is spot-on on trends and on pointing out how massive data harvesting are shaping our experience, both with the real world and the digital world. We may not be aware that some events happening to us have nothing to do with coincidence, but are rather generated by well-engineered algorithms.
Steve projects this trend in a very near future and sets the scene for the demise of traditional recruitment. This sounds like George Orwell’s novel come reality and yet we have already stepped into this world.
I have a passion for technology and ethics combined and I am humbled by the complexity of how humans reach a decision. There is very little doubt that algorithms have already profoundly changed the economy and employment. High frequency trading has been a reality for years now, this is nothing but complex IT and financial logic intertwined. Algorithms at their best, with a questionable positive contribution to the real economy. Hundreds of currency traders have already lost their jobs to algorithm-based trading. Impact on employment is not a myth.
Steve’s article relates to an already happening reality. Finance industry did lead the charge, using weapons of “math destruction”. Remember when the British pound dropped over 6 % in value within seconds on the 7th of October 2016, partly because of currency trades massively triggered by algorithms?
Algorithms when applied to transactions’ optimization do really bring a great value. You probably use them daily. They allow a better targeted delivery of information on your smart devices. You get more of the content that interests you. The more you read these news, the more it learns about what will catch your interest in the future. Oh, yes, there is a downside, algorithms will surely feed you with what you want to see, but they will also skip other topics of interest, creating little by little, a tunneled perspective of the world. Discovering new topics outside your “preferences” will become more and more rare. Cognitive spectrum will become the first casualty.
Algorithms help you arrive on time by optimizing your transportation path and avoiding traffic congestion. Algorithms greatly equalize access to knowledge and information. This is nothing less than an information revolution. People can search and access billions of documents on the Internet. With such a wealth of information, we run the risk to widen the social divide. Learning journalism fundamental skillsets like cross checking information and prioritizing information sources will be a real asset.
Yes, there is magic in how simple and friendly our interaction with information has become. Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence have made their way to the public in a non-frightening and even friendly looking fashion. It is a fabulous experience to ask Google about virtually anything and get within seconds wealth of information back. It has become so comfortable to glance at our phone to decide whether the raincoat will come along or get an extra day in the closet. But this perception of seamless continuity between our real world and the digital one is numbing our conscience and poses fundamental ethical questions.
Let’s face it, many CEOs and business leaders are more driven by fear to lose ground on competition rather than by faith on the rightness of their strategy. They constantly seek external reference to benchmark themselves with peers. The writing is on the wall. Business leaders fearing for their margins, will want to fight the economic war with the same weapons as competition. CEOs will force-feed shareholders with analytics that will provide perception of well-constructed strategy, but the vast aggregation of multiple sources of data will make it close to impossible to question . Employees town halls will run caricatural sets of data where oversight will be very difficult or impossible. Bart Knijnenburg, assistant professor at Clemson University says it will be too difficult to go beyond algorithms ‘advices for people, turning these algorithms into self-fulfilling prophecies, and users into zombies who exclusively consume easy-to-consume items
I would strongly recommend reading the excellent February 2017 report from the PewResearchCenter on Code-dependent : Pros and Cons of the Algorithm age. It is freely available and solidly researched, it covers ethics, business and balances the benefits and mayhem that algorithms and AI bring to our lives.
Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, pointed out that predictive analytics based on algorithms tend to punish the poor. Many corporations resort to deploying automatic systems to zip through down piles of CV. In the US, over 70% of CVs are never seen by human eyes. Applying for a position implies catering one’s resume to the “expectations” of the algorithm. In other words, it requires sprinkling the right key words, the right job titles for the past experiences, keeping up to date with words and avoiding expressions that could send your CV to the digital bin. But in reality, how many candidates rephrase their resumes to make them compliant to an artificial intelligence logic that does not disclose its filtering methodology?
I have been running HR departments in different countries, industries and cultures. There is one red line throughout my experiences: HR like many support function is expected to save costs and recruitment is a sitting duck for savings. Automation comes in mind immediately. Good news for the CFO is that for less than USD 50,000 a corporation can save on time wasted at reading resumes and interviewing non-fit candidates.
There comes the algorithm in shining armor. It has no bias, would not discriminate against gender, races, age, … A God-sent solution that will detect the diamond in the rough, while your now reduced HR headcount is now focusing on strategic added-value projects.
Wait a minute! applicant tracking systems are not designed to find the best, they are meant to keep at bay the myriad of non-relevant CVs. To be competitive, applicant tracking systems need to offer some unique selling points, so they must be smart. Smart means they know, for instance, that from statistical data, applicants living beyond a specific radius away from job have a higher risk of quitting on you sooner. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to tick the geography box and automatically send a polite negative reply to these distant applicants?
Xerox, relies on an automated solution to staff their call centers. They realized that distance was an issue that led to turnover, they also discovered that people coming from poor neighborhoods were likely to have longer commutes. Kudos for Xerox who did remove this correlation from their algorithmic model.
But a different CEO or harder economic times would have called for a different approach. It only takes one Boolean expression in your code and dwellers from a specific town would never make it to your payroll.
Now that your HR systems run against reassuring facts (your company real time hiring profiles, performance and churn data), some trends are easy to spot. The great personality tests used to filter out irrelevant profiles can be made greater again: correlate the personality profiles of the leavers with your filtering algorithm. Employees who demonstrate a more inquisitive mindset in some work environment are more prone to leave for other opportunities. Thanks to algorithms, you will be able to shape a docile workforce by just not hiring people with a much-needed sense of “looking past appearances”.
My passion for technology drives me to search for more opportunities to streamline and increase smart performance but only when Ethics and Respect remain the overarching backbone.
The frightening danger facing us with the exponential usage of algorithms is the pernicious invisibility of the logic. We will be provided with data for shaping organizations with little idea of how wicked the data set could be. In all good faith we will implement, step by step, the eviction of humanity in our organizations.
The below comments from the Pew report efficiently summarize the Ethical risk coming our way.
“By utilitarian metrics, algorithmic decision-making has no downside; the fact that it results in perpetual injustices toward the very minority classes it creates will be ignored. The Common Good has become a discredited, obsolete relic of The Past.”
“Algorithms are the new gold, and it’s hard to explain why the average ‘good’ is at odds with the individual ‘good.’”
As more and more of our decisions are based on questionable combined data sources, our responsibility moving on is to re-humanize decision making. Let’s not fool ourselves, it will be an uphill battle and the most powerful weapon available is education and learning. Without a strong political will to make true information literacy a component of fundamental education, society will be divided into two groups, those who can use algorithms and those used by algorithms.
Educate our children, first and foremost on Humanity and what freedom is about. Freedom is choice and having our choices pre-chewed is a form of alienation. Teach them Ethics and explain to them why we have remained, so far, on top of the food chain: By using our brains to process intelligible information that lead to reasonable actions and predictable results.
Educate ourselves and our teams, fear not algorithms, they do not bite nor do they dream about the extinction of humans, that’s only happening in Hollywood movies. Join your IT colleagues for lunch and get acquainted with the new trends in technology, they are great people to learn from. Offer your participation in the next Request For Proposal on software implementation in your division and insist to add a section on transparency on algorithms / Artificial Intelligence that addresses opacity of data construction.
Fear not technology nor digitalization, they will keep on bringing better healthcare, enhanced fundamental research and more efficient and people friendly business solutions. Embrace technology as an opportunity for our society to develop and grow. Humans have a natural tendency to highjack the beauty of science to serve short term needs or to feed their twisted thirst of power. Electricity brought us light, electronics, acceleration of more reliable motorization, while some invented the horrid electric chair. Education combined with a sharp sense of Conscience are the last wall before the business of Artificial Intelligence enters a fast derailing spiral.
Educate and enlighten your leadership team by inviting a professor of Ethics for a workshop. Believe me, this is one of the best ROI your company will ever make.
Appoint today your new CEO, Chief Ethics Officer.