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March 12, 2013

Algorithms Become More Powerful, Think Like Humans

Whether you are trading stocks or steering political campaigns, computer algorithms are playing a big role in the decision making and management processes of today. Although such algorithms are getting more powerful, fast and precise, they are limited by the capabilities of the computers in which they are implemented. In fact, tasks become more challenging when they are asked to think and do like human beings.

Nevertheless, there are human hands behind today’s sophisticated algorithms, according to an article in New York Times by reporter Steve Lohr. In this article, Lohr tries to show that it takes more than a programming expert to make complex algorithms work. Besides generating step-by-step instructions of computer code, “additional people are needed to make more subtle contributions as the work the computers do has become more involved,” wrote Lohr.

Humans can interpret and tweak information in ways that are understandable to both computers and other humans. The writer believes that algorithms alone are not sufficient today. Man-machine collaboration is needed to make them work. To support this thought, the author cites the question-answering technologies of Apple’s Siri and IBM’sWatson as examples, which rely on the emerging man-machine interface.

Another example is Twitter (News - Alert). This social network uses an army of contract workers called judges to interpret the meaning and context of search terms that suddenly spike in frequency on the service, wrote Lohr. To support this argument, the author cites one more example. This time he highlights two words used by Mitt Romney in a presidential debate. The words were “Big Bird”. Twitter’s Human judges recognized instantly that use of “Big Bird” was mainly a political comment and not a reference to “Sesame Street.”

Consequently, politics-related messages should pop up when someone searched for “Big Bird.” “People can understand such references more accurately and quickly than software can, and their judgments are fed immediately into Twitter’s search algorithm,” wrote Lohr.

Similar human helpers are also being exploited by search engine giant Google (News - Alert). Scott Huffman, an engineering director in charge of search quality at Google told New York Times, ““Our engineers evolve the algorithm, and humans help us see if a suggested change is really an improvement.”




Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli
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