February 8, 2017

Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age

About this canvassing of experts

The expert predictions reported here about the impact of the internet over the next 10 years came in response to one of eight questions asked by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in an online canvassing conducted between July 1 and Aug. 12, 2016. This is the seventh Future of the Internet study the two organizations have conducted together. For this project, we invited nearly 8,000 experts and members of the interested public to share their opinions on the likely future of the internet, and 1,537 responded to at least one of the questions we asked. This report covers responses to one of five questions in the canvassing. Overall, 1,302 people responded. Some 728 of them gave answers to this follow-up question, which asked them to elaborate on their answers about the future impact of algorithms:

Algorithms will continue to have increasing influence over the next decade, shaping people’s work and personal lives and the ways they interact with information, institutions (banks, health care providers, retailers, governments, education, media and entertainment) and each other. The hope is that algorithms will help people quickly and fairly execute tasks and get the information, products, and services they want. The fear is that algorithms can purposely or inadvertently create discrimination, enable social engineering and have other harmful societal impacts.

Question: Will the net overall effect of algorithms be positive for individuals and society or negative for individuals and society?

The answer options were:

  • Positives outweigh negatives
  • Negatives outweigh positives
  • The overall impact will be about 50-50

Then we asked:

Please elaborate on your answer and consider addressing these issues in your response: What are the main positive changes you foresee? What are the main negative ones? What dimensions of life will be most affected – health care, consumer choice, the dissemination of news, educational opportunities, others? How will the expanding collection and analysis of data and the resulting applications of this information impact people’s lives? What kinds of predictive modeling will make life more convenient for citizens? What kinds of discrimination might occur? What kind of oversight mechanisms might be used to assess the impact of algorithms?

No matter how they answered the question, nearly all respondents pointed out some negatives of algorithm-based decision-making, sorting, work activities and other applications. Some 38% opted for the prediction that the positive impacts of algorithms will outweigh negatives for individuals and society in general, while 37% said negatives will outweigh positives, and 25% said the overall impact of algorithms will be about 50-50, positive-negative.

While many of these respondents estimate that the impact of algorithms will be negative, most of these experts assume that – no matter what drawbacks may develop – algorithm-based decision-making will continue to expand in influence and impact.

The web-based instrument was first sent directly to a list of targeted experts identified and accumulated by Pew Research Center and Elon University during the previous six “Future of the Internet” studies, as well as those identified across 12 years of studying the internet realm during its formative years. Among those invited were people who are active in global internet governance and internet research activities, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Internet Society (ISOC), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We also invited a large number of professionals and policy people from technology businesses; government, including the National Science Foundation, Federal Communications Commission and European Union; think tanks and interest networks (for instance, those that include professionals and academics in anthropology, sociology, psychology, law, political science and communications); globally located people working with communications technologies in government positions; technologists and innovators; top universities’ engineering/computer science, business/entrepreneurship faculty and graduate students and postgraduate researchers; plus many who are active in civil society organizations such as Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Access Now; and those affiliated with newly emerging nonprofits and other research units examining ethics and the digital age. Invitees were encouraged to share the survey link with others they believed would have an interest in participating, thus there was a “snowball” effect as the invitees were joined by those they invited to weigh in.

Since the data are based on a non-random sample, the results are not projectable to any population other than the individuals expressing their points of view in this sample. The respondents’ remarks reflect their personal positions and are not the positions of their employers; the descriptions of their leadership roles help identify their background and the locus of their expertise. About 80% of respondents identified themselves as being based in North America; the others hail from all corners of the world. When asked about their “primary area of internet interest,” 25% identified themselves as research scientists; 7% as entrepreneurs or business leaders; 8% as authors, editors or journalists; 14% as technology developers or administrators; 10% as advocates or activist users; 9% as futurists or consultants; 2% as legislators, politicians or lawyers; and 2% as pioneers or originators; an additional 25% specified their primary area of interest as “other.”

More than half of the expert respondents elected to remain anonymous. Because people’s level of expertise is an important element of their participation in the conversation, anonymous respondents were given the opportunity to share a description of their internet expertise or background, and this was noted where relevant in this report.

Here are some of the key respondents in this report:

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; danah boyd, founder of Data & Society; Stowe Boyd, chief researcher at Gigaom; Marcel Bullinga, trend watcher and keynote speaker; Randy Bush, Internet Hall of Fame member and research fellow at Internet Initiative Japan; Jamais Cascio, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future; Barry Chudakov, founder and principal at Sertain Research and StreamFuzion Corp.; David Clark, Internet Hall of Fame member and senior research scientist at MIT; Cindy Cohn, executive director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Anil Dash, technologist; Cory Doctorow, writer, computer science activist-in-residence at MIT Media Lab and co-owner of Boing Boing; Judith Donath, Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; Stephen Downes, researcher at the National Research Council of Canada; Bob Frankston, internet pioneer and software innovator; Oscar Gandy, emeritus professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania; Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the Future; Jon Lebkowsky, CEO of Polycot Associates; Peter Levine, professor and associate dean for research at Tisch College of Civic Life; Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future; Rebecca MacKinnon, director of Ranking Digital Rights at New America Foundation; John Markoff, author of Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots and senior writer at The New York Times; Jerry Michalski, founder at REX; Andrew Nachison, founder at We Media; Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information and professor of law at the University of Maryland; Demian Perry, director of mobile at NPR; Justin Reich, executive director at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab; Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Fame member and first president and CEO of ICANN; Michael Rogers, author and futurist at Practical Futurist; Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; David Sarokin, author of Missed Information: Better Information for Building a Wealthier, More Sustainable Future; Henning Schulzrinne, Internet Hall of Fame member and professor at Columbia University; Doc Searls, journalist, speaker, and director of Project VRM at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland; Richard Stallman, Internet Hall of Fame member and president of the Free Software Foundation; Baratunde Thurston, a Director’s Fellow at MIT Media Lab, Fast Company columnist, and former digital director of The Onion; Patrick Tucker, author and technology editor at Defense One; Steven Waldman, founder and CEO of LifePosts; Jim Warren, longtime technology entrepreneur and activist; Amy Webb, futurist and CEO at the Future Today Institute; and David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

Here is a selection of some of the institutions at which respondents work or have affiliations:

AAI Foresight, Access Now, Adobe, Altimeter, The Aspen Institute, AT&T, Booz Allen Hamilton, California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Center for Digital Education, Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, Cisco, Computerworld, Craigslist, Cyber Conflict Studies Association, Cyborgology, DareDistrupt, Data & Society, Digital Economy Research Center, Digital Rights Watch, dotTBA, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Ethics Research Group, European Digital Rights, Farpoint Group, Federal Communications Commission, Flipboard, Free Software Foundation, Future of Humanity Institute, Future of Privacy Forum, Futurewei, Gartner, Genentech, George Washington University, Georgia Tech, Gigaom, Gilder Publishing, Google, Groupon, Hack the Hood, Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Hewlett Packard, Human Rights Watch, IBM, InformationWeek, Innovation Watch, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Institute for the Future, Institute of the Information Society, Intelligent Community Forum, International Association of Privacy Professionals, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, Internet Education Foundation, Internet Engineering Task Force, Internet Initiative Japan, Internet Society, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Karlsruhe Institute, Kenya ICT Network, KMP Global, The Linux Foundation, Lockheed Martin, Logic Technology, MediaPost, Michigan State University, Michigan State University, Microsoft, MIT, Mozilla, NASA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Public Radio, National Science Foundation, Neustar, New America, New Jersey Institute of Technology, The New York Times, Nokia, Nonprofit Technology Network, NYU, OpenMedia, Oxford University’s Martin School, Philosophy Talk, Privacy International, Queensland University of Technology, Raytheon BBN, Red Hat, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rice University Humanities Research Center, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Semantic Studios, Singularity University, Social Media Research Foundation, Spacetel, Square, Stanford University Digital Civil Society Lab, Syracuse University, Tech Networks of Boston, Telecommunities Canada, Tesla Motors, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Ignite, UCLA, UK Government Digital Service, Unisys, United Steelworkers, University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Irvine, University of California-Santa Barbara, University of Copenhagen, University of Michigan, University of Milan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Toronto, Vodaphone, We Media, Wired, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Yale University, York University.

Complete sets of credited and anonymous responses can be found here:

http://www.elon.edu/e-web/imagining/surveys/2016_survey/algorithm_impacts.xhtml
http://www.elon.edu/e-web/imagining/surveys/2016_survey/algorithm_impacts_credit.xhtml
http://www.elon.edu/e-web/imagining/surveys/2016_survey/algorithm_impacts_anon.xhtml