Algorithms Still Need Oversight

September 8, 2015

Many have pondered what might happen when artificial intelligence systems go off the rails. While not spectacular enough for Hollywood, some very real consequences have been observed; the BBC examines “The Bad Things that Happen When Algorithms Run Online Shops.”

The article begins by relating the tragic tale of an online T-shirt vendor who just wanted to capitalize on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” trend. He set up an algorithm to place random terms into the second half of that oft-copied phrase and generate suggested products. Unfortunately, the list of phrases was not sufficiently vetted, resulting in a truly regrettable slogan virtually printed on virtual examples. Despite the fact that the phrase appeared only on the website, not on any actual shirts, the business never recovered its reputation and closed shortly thereafter. Reporter Chris Baranuik writes:

“But that’s the trouble with algorithms. All sorts of unexpected results can occur. Sometimes these are costly, but in other cases they have benefited businesses to the tune of millions of pounds. What’s the real impact of the machinations of machines? And what else do they do?”

Well, one other thing is to control prices. Baranuik reports that software designed to set online prices competitively, based on what other sites are doing, can cause prices to fluctuate day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour. Without human oversight, results can quickly become extreme to either end of the scale. For example, for a short time last December, prices of thousands of products sold through Amazon were set to just one penny each. Amazon itself probably weathered the unintended near-giveaways just fine, but smaller merchants selling through the site were not so well-positioned; some closed as a direct result of the error. On the other hand, vendors trying to keep their prices as high as feasible can make the opposite mistake; the article points to the time a blogger found an out-of-print textbook about flies priced at more than $23 million, the result of two sellers’ dueling algorithms.

Such observations clearly mean that consumers should be very wary about online prices. The bigger takeaway, though, is that we’re far from ready to hand algorithms the reigns of our world without sufficient human oversight. Not yet.

Cynthia Murrell, September 8, 2015

Sponsored by, publisher of the CyberOSINT monograph


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