Algorithmic Injustice

In the technology and society journal “The New Atlantis” Tafari Mbadiwe wrote a nice pice about algorithmic in justice, describing the omni presence of algorithms in our everyday life.

For generations, the Maasai people of eastern Africa have passed down the story of a tireless old man. He lived alone and his life was not easy. He spent every day in the fields — tilling the land, tending the animals, and gathering water. The work was as necessary as it was exhausting. But the old man considered himself fortunate. He had a good life, and never really gave much thought to what was missing.

One morning the old man was greeted with a pleasant surprise. Standing in his kitchen was a young boy, perhaps seven or eight years old. The old man had never seen him before. The boy smiled but said nothing. The old man looked around. His morning breakfast had already been prepared, just as he liked it. He asked the boy’s name. “Kileken,” the boy replied. After some prodding, the boy explained that, before preparing breakfast, he had completed all of the old man’s work for the day. Incredulous, the old man stepped outside. Indeed, the fields had been tilled, the animals tended, and the water gathered. Astonishment written all over his face, the old man staggered back into the kitchen. “How did this happen? And how can I repay you?” The boy smiled again, this time dismissively. “I will accept no payment. All I ask is that you let me stay with you.” The old man knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Kileken and the old man soon became inseparable, and the farm grew lush and bountiful as it never had before. The old man could hardly remember what life was like before the arrival of his young comrade. There could be no doubt: With Kileken’s mysterious assistance, the old man was prospering. But he never quite understood why, or how, it had happened.

There is no doubt that the digitalization in general and algorithms in particular have a positive impact on our life, but without fully understanding each one of them and the interdependence with society there lies the danger of systemic injustice by applying them. We have to carefully asses the impact of algorithms and the data foundation they draw their conclusions out from in order to prevent unintentional consequences.

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