Ethics and the Algorithm

Behind every piece of code that drives our decisions is a human making judgments — about what matters and what does not.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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Editor’s Note: This article is one of a special series of 14 commissioned essays MIT Sloan Management Review is publishing to celebrate the launch of our new Frontiers initiative. Each essay gives the author’s response to this question:

“Within the next five years, how will technology change the practice of management in a way we have not yet witnessed?”

Are we designing algorithms, or are algorithms designing us? How sure are you that you are directing your own behavior? Or are your actions a product of a context that has been carefully shaped by data, analysis, and code?

Advances in information technology certainly create benefits for how we live. We can access more customized services and recommendations; we can outsource mundane tasks like driving, vacuuming floors, buying groceries, and picking up food. But there are potential costs as well. Concerns over the future of jobs have led to discussions about a universal basic income — in other words, a salary just for being human. Concerns over the changing nature of social interaction have covered topics ranging from how to put your phone down and have a face-to-face conversation with someone to the power dynamics of a society where many people are plugged into virtual reality headsets. Underlying these issues is a concern for our own agency: How will we shape our futures? What kind of world will information technology help us create?

Advances in information technology have made the use of data — principally data about our own behaviors — ubiquitous in the online experience. Companies tailor their offerings based on the technology we employ — for example, the travel website Orbitz a few years ago was discovered to be steering Mac users to higher-priced travel services than it was PC users. Dating sites like eHarmony and Tinder suggest partners based on both our stated and implied preferences. News stories are suggested based on our previous reading habits and our social network activities. Yahoo, Facebook, and Google tailor the order, display, and ease of choices to influence us to spend more time on their platforms, so they can collect even more data and further intermediate our daily transactions.

Increasingly, our physical world is also being influenced by data. Consider self-driving cars or virtual assistants like Siri and Amazon’s Echo.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
More in this series

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