In 1983, at the height of the Cold War, just one man stood between an algorithm and the outbreak of nuclear war. Stanislav Petrov, a colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty in a secret command center when early-warning alarms went off indicating the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles from an American base. The systems reported that the alarm was of the highest possible reliability. Petrov’s role was to advise his superiors on the veracity of the alarm that, in turn, would affect their decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack. Instead of trusting the algorithm, Petrov went with his gut and reported that the alarm was a malfunction. He turned out to be right.
This historical nugget represents an extreme example of the effect that algorithms have on our lives. The detection algorithm, it turns out, mistook the sun’s reflection for a missile launch. It is a sobering thought that a poorly designed or malfunctioning algorithm could have changed the course of history and resulted in millions of deaths.
Algorithms in Modern Society
Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), self-driving vehicles, and the Internet of things (IoT) are leading us into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They are bridging the chasm between the physical world and the digital realm, hinting a radical change in the way technology mediates human communication and experiences. The behaviors of these technologies are the result of complex algorithms. Code making up AI agents determines if a customer is to see a particular ad or receive a product offer, but not another one. Rules determine the information AR overlays onto the world in front of our eyes. Programs guide self-driving vehicles on congested roads and make them brake if a child crosses their path. Rules in IoT devices decide when to trigger a tsunami alert. These examples highlight the hidden…