2:4:16 We've Got Algorithms

The other day, I was talking with my auto insurance agent and he mentioned my credit score was good. He added that credit scores were part of a new algorithm insurance companies use to set premiums for individuals.

[black box]

As far as my agent was concerned, however, the algorithm was a black box. In the old days he said, an agent could take information about your age, what your car was worth, a few questions about your driving record and give you an off-the-cuff estimate of what your auto premiums would run and be close.

No more. Not with the black box.

I asked if the importance of credit scores was they suggested responsible handling of finances made for good driving habits. Not doing the impulsive things that often lead to accidents.

He said, yes, that was the thinking and although there's no causal relationship between one's credit score and one's driving record, the strong correlation is more than enough for insurance underwriters to use it for decisions.

This is but one example of a larger point: Algorithms are increasingly with us. Algorithm--or bots as they're commonly called--seem an inevitable consequence of computer power that is as cheap as water and data collection that often seems effortless. So algorithms/bots consume data, massage it, and make decisions.

In an excellent overview of the rise of algorithmmic technology, Christopher Steiner in Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World [Portfolio/Penguin 2012] takes note of algorithms:

    ~ Composing original music;

    ~ Executing 60% of Wall Street trading volume;

    ~ Delivering micro-targeted advertising to you the Web surfer;

    ~ Piloting driverless cars that rack up 140,000 miles accident-free;

    ~ Analyzing an unreleased CD like "Come Away With Me" and discovering an unknown artist;

    ~ Turning a financially and talent-strapped major league baseball team into a consistent contender;

    ~ Listening to customer support callers, analyzing the personality of the callers, and assigning them to compatible call center employees;

Algorithms/bots do all this and more.

Consider your next visit to the doc. When she takes down your symptoms, she might also be consulting with the medical bot window open on the screen of her laptop.

The upshot is algorithms are here to stay. While the average layman won't know what's in the black box--no more than my insurance agent does--we must know it's here.

By the way, I authorized my agent to update my credit score and voila! he was happy to report my premiums dropped 8%.

Image credit: google images: designshack.net


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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

Also, a flash fiction, "Ylena Thinks Nyet," is at Cigale Literary Magazine.



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