How to outrun the algorithms that try to define your love and life

A movie still from Bridget Jones's Baby. PHOTO: GILES KEYTE

In the latest instalment of the popular movie franchise, Bridget Jones's Baby, one of the male leads decided to check his compatibility with Bridget and a dismal 8 per cent match was calculated. When his rival-in-love's name was entered, the algorithm returned a 97 per cent compatibility rate.

The rise of the invisible yet seamlessly integrated-into-our- lives algorithms increasingly determine what news we read, the songs we should listen to, the friends we should stay in touch with, the strangers we should connect with; and in national milestones such as elections, whom we should vote for.

A controversy earlier this year highlighted algorithms that determine trending topics on Facebook that could have the ability to influence election outcomes. The latter was sufficiently serious for Facebook to issue a formal response at a Republican Senate inquiry in May this year. In the business world, the power of algorithms has even become subjects of anti-trust suits between governments and large organisations.

On a lighter note, a one-time purchase of three historical bodice rippers played havoc with the recommendation algorithm that transformed an Amazon account previously filled with books about military strategy, quirky films, Lego and D.C. Heroes collectibles and Japanese anime to one filled with suggestions of increasingly salacious bodice rippers to tempt the account holder. (This was after I used a relative's account to buy some novels by Kathleen Woodiwiss.)

However, from another perspective, the winning combination of algorithms that predicted the potential success of House Of Cards, a deep pocket and perhaps a dose of good old-fashioned intuition resulted in the now famous deployment of the US$100 million investment that Netflix paid to have the House Of Cards (US edition) broadcast first on its platform in 2013. It has since been renewed for a fifth season on Netflix next year. This combination was deployed in its other big success, Orange Is The New Black.

At a much higher order, data and algorithms have made the agenda to help solve some of the world's most pressing sustainable development challenges. The Global Data Partnership for Sustainable Development Data seeks to work with governments, NGOs and businesses to put data, data science and yes, even algorithms, to good use in the achievement of the United Nations Vision 2030.

As we continue to live our lives through the windows of our devices and increasingly through the invisible sensors around us as everyday appliances and products have Internet-of-Things sensors embedded, we will generate even more data for hungry algorithms to consume and further model and recommend the lens through which we should view our world, our lives and even our families and friends.

In fact, Amazon filed its Anticipatory Shipping algorithm in 2012 (granted in 2014) that predicts when items are likely to be purchased and hence to pre-ship it to the closest distribution centre even before the order had been made.

The big question therefore is, as access to the world is increasingly managed by data-crunching algorithms and the almost mythical combination of prediction engines and soon artificial intelligence, would our views get narrower instead of broader? Would we be able to truly control what we want to see, read, listen, buy and watch, and who we want to date, be friends with and even vote for?

Could we outrun the algorithm? Absolutely!

And so here are my suggestions on how we can start to take back control of our lens to the world.

First, go offline. Spend time in the physical world. Read the newspaper. Go to the library and wander through the aisles and pick a title that captures your interest. Watch a movie. Read the newspaper and even magazines. Meet friends, have a conversation, exchange your points of view and indulge in persuasion methods of old where opinions are debated and you find different ways to get your point across.

But we cannot ignore the online world. While online, clear cache and opt for do-not-track features in the settings in your devices.

Ignore recommendations unless the options truly appeal. Manually select filter options. For example, on Facebook, select the "Most Recent" option for your news feed. Do not automatically accept the "Top Stories" option.

The most important is to minimise the "default to factory settings" often embedded in your devices, social media and e-commerce accounts and applications.

Take control by not acceding control to devices and machines.

I started this story with the scene in Bridget Jones' s Baby that indicated that Bridget was 97 per cent compatible with one of the male leads, thanks to Jack Quant's proprietary love algorithm. However, Bridget goes on to say that the 97 per cent compatibility is only "on paper". But the best news is that Jane Austen and her fans can rest well tonight knowing that sometimes an algorithm gets it totally wrong and the happy ending we have loved for generations remains intact.

But perhaps the best advice to outrun the algorithm can be attributed to Mr Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet Inc. At a session at the World Economic Forum this year, he mentioned that if we want to win the race against robots, we need to cultivate what makes human beings more human.

Therein lies the answer - we can outrun the algorithm by simply being more human.

•The writer is managing director, Global Data Innovation Centre, of Dentsu Aegis Network.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'How to outrun the algorithms that try to define your love and life'. Print Edition | Subscribe