Photo: Kevin Ku/Unsplash

The programs that govern decisions in all aspects of our lives are only as good as the humans running them.

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Stop scrolling through whatever “feed” you’re currently skimming and contemplate how much of your life is determined by algorithms.

Algorithms vet job candidates, determine prison sentences, judge screenplays, set insurance premiums, make medical diagnoses, pick the “friends” with whom you stay in contact and even calculate how much coffee is the right amount for each individual. Algorithms are the secret recipes governing how computers make decisions and solve problems, including what search results Google returns and who the IRS audits. Today, there are algorithms in the works that portend to predict crime.

An FDA for Algorithms: But who is watching the algorithms to make sure they’re achieving their purpose and being applied fairly?

Mathematician Hannah Fry, a professor at University College London and author of the book Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms, argues the time has come for algorithms to be more transparent and regulated.

Just as the Food and Drug Administration tests prescription meds for their efficacy and safety, Fry argues there should be a federal agency doing the same for algorithms, which are increasingly entwined with life’s decision-making processes.

“You can harvest any data that you want, on anybody. You can infer any data that you like, and you can use it to manipulate them in any way that you choose,” Fry told National Geographic.  “And you can roll out an algorithm that genuinely makes massive differences to people’s lives, both good and bad, without any checks and balances. To me, that seems completely bonkers.”

Taking Back Control: As companies and governments gather more personal data and algorithms are increasingly employed in every facet of life, Fry says humans need to work more in concert with their creations and wield more control of how their data is deployed. Otherwise, a computer program could send you to jail or cost you your dream job.

“All these algorithms require huge amounts of data to be able to work,” she told Nautilus. “The question is, who owns your data and are you complicit in giving up your right to that data? I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we know how to navigate these issues, protecting people’s privacy while shooting for a more positive future.”