The Unexamined Algorithm Is Not Worth Using

Ruben Mancha & Haslina Ali at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “In 1983, at the height of the Cold War, just one man stood between an algorithm and the outbreak of nuclear war. Stanislav Petrov, a colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty in a secret command center when early-warning alarms went off indicating the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles from an American base. The systems reported that the alarm was of the highest possible reliability. Petrov’s role was to advise his superiors on the veracity of the alarm that, in turn, would affect their decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack. Instead of trusting the algorithm, Petrov went with his gut and reported that the alarm was a malfunction. He turned out to be right.

This historical nugget represents an extreme example of the effect that algorithms have on our lives. The detection algorithm, it turns out, mistook the sun’s reflection for a missile launch. It is a sobering thought that a poorly designed or malfunctioning algorithm could have changed the course of history and resulted in millions of deaths….

We offer five recommendations to guide the ethical development and evaluation of algorithms used in your organization:

  1. Consider ethical outcomes first, speed and efficiency second. Organizations seeking speed and efficiency through algorithmic automation should remember that customer value comes through higher strategic speed, not higher operational speed. When implementing algorithms, organizations should never forget their ultimate goal is creating customer value, and fast yet potentially unethical algorithms defile that objective.
  2. Make ethical guiding principles salient to your organization. Your organization should reflect on the ethical principles guiding it and convey them clearly to employees, business partners, and customers. A corporate social responsibility framework is a good starting point for any organization ready to articulate its ethical principles.
  3. Employ programmers well versed in ethics. The computer engineers responsible for designing and programming algorithms should understand the ethical implications of the products of their work. While some ethical decisions may seem intuitive (such as do not use an algorithm to steal data from a user’s computer), most are not. The study of ethics and the practice of ethical inquiry should be part of every coding project.
  4. Interrogate your algorithms against your organization’s ethical standards. Through careful evaluation of the your algorithms’ behavior and outcomes, your organization can identify those circumstances, real or simulated, in which they do not meet the ethical standards.
  5. Engage your stakeholders. Transparently share with your customers, employees, and business partners details about the processes and outcomes of your algorithms. Stakeholders can help you identify and address ethical gaps….(More).