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Mapping an Algorithm for Humans

Algorithms are the set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps, and they are also a hot topic in the technology world.

Governments are increasingly focused on algorithms as they consider the implications of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning that are built upon them. As more complicated algorithms become possible, the question arises – what would an algorithm for humans look like?

“Algorithms are instructions,” Dr. Andrew L. Brooks, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Chief Data Scientist, said during a recent speech at the 2018 NextGen Summit. “What are the rules for people and their interactions? What are those things that need to be involved?”

Brooks said that the rules for an algorithm are called variables, and that he would choose three that are fundamental traits for humans.

“It’s resilience,” he said of which quality he’d choose first. “It’s the ability to adapt. If something happens, what are you going to do?”

Brooks said that he would next pick curiosity, noting that seeking new information is often a driving force behind taking chances.

“It’s not just that we want to understand how the world around us works,” he said of curiosity. “We don’t just wonder that, we do things based around that. We experiment, we try things, we take things.”

Brooks added that his final ingredient in an algorithm for humanity would be empathy, as it brings together peoples’ bravery and vulnerability.

“Empathy is more than compassion or sympathy,” he said. “It’s really about trying to understand how the other person feels. That’s hard to get to.”

Brooks said that every person would have a different example of humans who expressed resilience, curiosity and empathy. The NGA official added that his illustration of choice is Endurance expedition between 1914 and 1917.

Sir Edmund Shackleton led the Endurance trek, which was named after the ship he commandeered during the mission. The expedition was the first attempted land crossing of Antarctica, and it has since become synonymous with overcoming adversity.

Endurance eventually became trapped in the Weddell Sea during the frigid Antarctic winter of 1915, forcing Shackleton and his crew to shelter on the uninhabited Elephant Island. Despite dangerous conditions, the group eventually split up, leading to some of them making an 800-mile journey that brought rescue forces to the others.

“They just didn’t give up,” he said of Endurance’s crew. “That’s one story. What are those other stories where people have faced adversity and used those components to improve humanity?”

Brooks said that he had used his informal algorithm for humans to help the NGA’s satellite data collection and analysis efforts.

“We collect and analyze all this raw data,” he said. “We convert it into information to inform decision makers.”

Brooks added that rather than fearing the calculating power of algorithms, humans should use them to improve themselves, their lives and their governments.

“We found that we broke those barriers down, brought in this technology and helped them out,” he said of the NGA’s analysts. “They had this realization that we helped them think of things in a new way they hadn’t before. Data’s everywhere. It’s shorthand for innovation. Where is government going next?”

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

This keynote by Dr. Brooks was really insightful, especially through the humanity lens of where government can go for its citizens next.