By Sanah Thakur
I feel like drinking an Iced Latte, except where do I order one from? I open my food delivery mobile application and check out my options. The thirst is desperate to be quenched, so my fingers only click on the first three cafes, the one with popular reviews grabbing my attention. I pick the latte, confirm the item and wait patiently, brimming with satisfaction at the drink I chose. Or perhaps, the drink I believe I chose. After all, I made all the effort in the process of selection. But do you think that initial decision was truly mine?
The process of decision making requires considerable deliberation over the alternatives, until a conclusion is reached to resolve the problem. The conclusion is based on the degree to which it aids survival, the positive neurochemical feedback it produces and how efficiently it satisfies a desire. However, are we really in charge of the decisions we make? Or do big data algorithms, which we rely heavily on today, convince us they’ve made the decision they anticipated we would want to make. I don’t remember the last time I decided on a retail store, choice of restaurant or cellphone, without relying on Google.
A popular metaphor in the world of cognitive psychology is one comparing the brain to a computer. The human brain uses thoughts to communicate and carry out tasks, while computers use algorithms to dictate commands. At the end, both control centres, the brain and the computer, are able to operate by making micro decisions for the ultimate survival of the organism. Much like the survival of humans, search engines and big data algorithms can only survive with the more data they have access to. And with 4.39 billion people (approx. number of internet users in 2019) constantly feeding in data through their decisions, swiping right or left, clicking or avoiding, double tapping or blocking – there’s no dearth of data powering these algorithms. This data is then accumulated and used to simplify bigger decision-making questions asked of it. For example, if you type into Google, “Which is the best restaurant that serves sushi in my area?”, it will generate a hierarchy of options based on decisions made by millions of people over a period of time. So this means, multiple micro decisions have already made the decision of labelling a restaurant as ‘the best’, long before you logged in to ask the question.
Yuval Noah Harari in his book, 21 lessons for the 21st Century, discusses the impact of relying on computers to make decisions, arguing that if we already trust navigation applications to take us through the best route possible, what’s stopping us from trusting algorithms to make recommendations of what to study, where to live and who to marry? While you might debate that the algorithm is just making ‘suggestions’, its most likely you will choose the recommendation, as experience will reveal the algorithms make better choices. After all, they collect, analyse and remember more information about you than you do about yourself. The brain is relentless in its mission to find the shortest and most efficient path to resolve a problem and with big data algorithms providing tailormade solutions, you’re probably the last one to be consulted in YOUR own decision-making process.
While we’re far from constantly relying on computers and algorithms to make our decisions, it’s interesting to reflect on the decisions we have made in our lives and trace their true source. This article is speculative in nature and isn’t written with the aim to impose this situation as a fact. However, it is definitely intriguing, especially at such a time when artificial intelligence and information technology is at its peak in advancement. Next time you want to make a real decision, just walk down to your nearest café and order the iced latte you really would have made that decision.
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