Whom Would You Trust: A Human or an Algorithm?

First published October 31, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’vmindrobote been struggling with a dilemma.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column asking if Big Data would replace strategy. That started a several-month journey for me, when I’ve been looking for a more informed answer to that query. It’s a massively important question that’s playing out in many arenas today, including medicine, education, government and, of course, finance.

In marketing, we’re well into the era of big data. Of course, it’s not just data we’re talking about. We’re talking about algorithms that use that data to make automated decisions and take action. Some time ago, MediaPost’s Steve Smith introduced us to a company called Persado, that takes an algorithmic approach to copy testing and optimization. As an ex-copywriter turned performance marketer I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I understand the science of continuous testing but I have an emotional stake in the art of crafting an effective message. And therein lies the dilemma. Our comfort with algorithms seems to depend on the context in which we’re encountering them and the degree of automation involved.

Let me give you an example, from Ian Ayre’s book “Super Crunchers.” There’s a company called Epagogix that uses an algorithm to predict the box-office appeal of unproduced movie scripts. Producers can retain the service to help them decide which projects to fund. Epagogix will also help producers optimize their chosen scripts to improve box-office performance. The question here is, do we want an algorithm controlling the creative output of the movie industry? Would we be comfortable take humans out of the loop completely and see where the algorithm eventually takes us?

Now, you may counter that we could include feedback from audience responses. We could use social signals to continually improve the algorithm, a collaborative filtering approach that uses the power of Big Data to guide the film industry’s creative process. Humans are still in the loop in this approach, but only as an aggregated sounding board. We have removed the essentially human elements of creativity, emotion and intuition. Even with the most robust system imaginable, are you comfortable with us humans taking our hands off the wheel?

Here’s another example from Ayre’s book. There is substantial empirical evidence that shows algorithms are better at diagnosing medical conditions than clinical practitioners. In a 1989 study by Dawes, Faust and Meehl, a diagnosis algorithmic rule set was consistently more reliable than actual clinical doctors. They then tried a combination, where doctors were made aware of the outcomes of the algorithm but were the final judges. Again, doctors would have been better off going with the results of the algorithm. Their second-guessing increased their margin of error significantly.

But, even knowing this, would you be willing to rely completely on an automated algorithm the next time you need medical attention? What if there was no doctor involved at all, and you were diagnosed and treated by an algo-driven robot?

There is also mounting (albeit highly controversial) evidence showing that direct instruction produces better learning outcomes that traditional exploratory teaching methods. In direct instruction, scripted automatons could easily replace the teacher’s role. Test scores could provide self-optimizing feedback loops. Learning could be driven by algorithms and delivered at a distance. Classrooms, along with teachers, could disappear completely. Is this a school you’d sign your kid up for?

Let’s stoke the fires of this dilemma a little. In a frightening TED talk, Kevin Slavin talks about how algorithms rule the world and offers a few examples of how algorithms have gotten it wrong in the past. The pricing algorithms of Amazon priced an out-of-print book called “The Making of a Fly” at a whopping $23.6 million dollars. Surprisingly, there were no sales. And in financial markets, where we’ve largely abdicated control to algorithms, those same algorithms spun out of control in 2012 no fewer than 18,000 times. So far, these instances have been identified and corrected in milliseconds, but there’s always a Black Swan chance that one time, they’ll crash the economy just for the hell of it.

But should we humans feel too smug, let’s remember this sobering fact: 20% of all fatal diseases were misdiagnosed. In fact, misdiagnosis accounts for about one-third of all medical error. And we humans have no one but ourselves to blame but for that.

As I said – it’s a dilemma.

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