We must make the 'right choices' when designing algorithms: Tim O'Reilly

The founder of O'Reilly Media is calling for a more human approach to technology. It's a start, but can we really break the Silicon Valley prism?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

"I believe that we can make a better future if we choose it, and in order to choose it we have to understand two things," Tim O'Reilly told ZDNet last Tuesday.

"We have to understand that there's a problem with what we're doing today, and we have to realize that there is another path."

O'Reilly had just delivered his keynote address to the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Conference on Operational Technologies (APRICOT) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, held in conjunction with the the Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) conference.

He'd been riffing off the ideas he's exploring for his forthcoming book "WTF?", for "What the Future?". It's clear to him that not everyone is thrilled by the technology-induced changes they see happening around them. And for good reason.

Blue-collar workers have seen their jobs decimated by robots. White-collar workers will soon see their jobs decimated by artificial intelligence, or so the standard model goes. Eventually there will be benefits. But right now things look scary, and populist politicians are capitalising on that fear.

"Our global economy has gone wrong because it has developed the mistaken idea that the purpose of technology is to maximise productivity, even if that means treating people as a cost to be eliminated," O'Reilly told the conference.

"It's a problem because of all the lost potential, but it's also a problem because as professor Andy McAfee, who's the co-author with Erik Brynjolfsson of a book called 'The Second Machine Age', said to me in a conversation once: 'The people will rise up before the robots do.'"

And perhaps they will. Because in the algorithmic future that is already the present, humans are already the underlings.

"When you think about a system like Uber or Lyft, there are programmers who are the top managers. And then there are their programs, the algorithms, who are the middle managers. And then there are humans, who are actually workers reporting to the algorithms," O'Reilly said.

The algorithms can sack workers when they're not productive enough, and the topmost level of managers can just shrug and blame those algorithms.

This isn't a technology issue, though, or even a business issue. It's a cultural issue, perhaps one that's central to the hypertrophied version of American business culture that is Silicon Valley.

"I think it's way bigger than technology, and I agree it is the American business culture ... We basically have a market that is running on an algorithm that says maximize shareholder value," O'Reilly told ZDNet.

Many if not most Silicon Valley startups aren't even trying to create a long-lasting business. "In fact a business, in many cases, it's a financial instrument."

O'Reilly is essentially an optimist. Or at least he believes that a dystopia isn't inevitable.

"I have great faith in that, because what Google taught us over the last 20 years is that algorithms are perfectible and improvable, and that one of the great works of the 21st century is going to be to make the algorithms, that we use to manage more and more of our society, better," O'Reilly told the conference.

"We have algorithms that are increasingly managing our businesses and managing our society. We have to make the right choices to design those algorithms in a way that leads to a better workplace for human beings."

That was a great pep talk for the geeks who filled the room. But then, for me, it all fell apart when O'Reilly gave Zipline a plug.

"The most important thing that I have seen is a start-up called Zipline, which is an on-demand service operating in Rwanda. They have figured out how to use drones and on-demand technology to deliver blood and medicines anywhere in the country within 20 minutes," he said.

Postpartum haemorrhage is one of the leading causes of death among women in Rwanda. The country lacks basic infrastructure. Zipline is presumably a great help.

I can't help think, though, that it's a brogrammer drone enthusiast's answer to the problem. If all you have is a hammer etc, parachuting medical supplies from a drone sounds almost exactly like a cargo cult.

Having spent a whole ten days in Tanzania a few years back, I'm obviously a complete expert in every aspect of African affairs. Or not. But I do know that in many parts of this vast, diverse continent the needs are basic.

Clean water. Proper sanitation. Reliable electricity. Less corruption.

Solving those problems probably won't involve playing with drones, but they'll improve the lot of millions of people. After all, working sewers are what gave us westerners our three score and ten years.

Disclosure: Stilgherrian travelled to Ho Chi Minh City as a guest of APNIC.

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