With the recent news of technology firms (such as Google) being interrogated by the government, surrounding controversial issues including user privacy and the impact of algorithms (a set of rules defining how an application works), is it time for the tech giants of the world to explain how their platforms work?
Users are beginning to question how tech actually works
The honeymoon period between technology platforms and users appears to be changing in recent times. Pervasive discussion surrounding themes such as privacy, algorithmic bias (how software, AI in particular can make biased decisions) and transparency is perhaps indicative of a fundamental change in the relationship between technology firms and society. Large firms with widespread usage, are more likely to be affected by this variance of perception.
Could explaining how these algorithms work solve the issue?
Software is complex. Conversely, despite the complexity of software, users everyday lives are tightly coupled to the decisions that such systems make. Thus introducing the question of whether technology firms should be mandated to explain how their algorithms work, akin to the documented side effects of medicine, which many societies see as imperative to explain, irrespective of most patients lack of medical knowledge.
Ultimately, if something has an impact on a users life, perhaps its inner working (to some extent) should be documented.
This of course could have several difficult scenarios to consider. Would this actually make a difference? With technology firms regularly upgrading their software to be competitive in the marketplace, is regular documentation of how such applications work feasible?
Finally and perhaps most notably, do firms with Artificial Intelligence applications truly understand how their platforms work? A well-established fact in the software industry is that intelligent applications learn and function autonomously based on training from data. Therefore documenting such applications inner workings may not even be possible.
Nonetheless, it could be argued that documenting such inner workings would at least give users some idea of how they will be impacted by the software.
Would such transparency make firms less competitive?
Although many of these platforms are free, they are indeed businesses. As such, in order to not only survive, but to evolve and grow, technology firms must remain competitive in order to thrive in the marketplace.
As a result, perhaps explaining how their most prized business assets work is both not fair and detrimental by opening the door to imitation.
Is there a better way to solve the problem?
Perhaps explaining to users is not the best way of solving the problem, given the aforementioned considerations. However, what is clear, is that users are putting pressure on firms to speak out and change any ignoble practices as they will be directly affected by such.