New study tackles rising influence of algorithms

Written by NTN staff

Some timely research will investigate how computer algorithms are influencing decision-making in key areas of public policy.

As more and more of our daily lives, from shopping to watching TV, are affected by the power of the computer algorithm - often seemingly beyond our control - a new £1.1million academic research programme will investigate how these processes are influencing decision-making in key areas of public policy. The study will cover three areas of public policy where algorithms are identified as playing a substantial role: refugee resettlement, the welfare system and healthcare provision.

Led by Cranfield University, the study will bring together academics from the University of East Anglia, Portsmouth University and Royal Holloway, University of London, to look at how system interactions can be re-designed to breed greater public confidence in the decision-making process. They will investigate how enhanced communication of the logic behind the system can increase trust in digital service design.

“From the issuing of parking tickets to transplant waiting lists, algorithms and systems are increasingly responsible for the delivery of policy decisions, often with little opportunity for human beings to overturn or review outcomes,” said Dr Duncan Hodges, Lecturer at Cranfield University and Principal Investigator.

“We are increasingly interacting with services that have been designed digitally to make decisions on an organisations behalf. If as a society, we lose trust in those services and the systems behind them, then there is the potential for a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between citizen and state. Our study will look at how systems can be redesigned with the aim of protecting the individual’s security while enhancing confidence in digital service design,” says Dr Hodges.

The three-year study is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which is now part of the newly formed UK Research and Innovation.

An algorithm is defined as a well-defined procedure that allows a computer to solve a problem. A particular problem can typically be solved by more than one algorithm. Given the prevalence and importance of algorithms it would also be useful if the study were eventually to be expanded into other walks of life. Most people have very little understanding about how and why algorithms behave in the way they do and it will be interesting to see whether the research throws light that might change common perceptions, increase curiosity (the press release is entitled Why does the computer say ‘no’?) and reach practical conclusions that ultimately change the relationships between human and software.