We Need an FDA For Algorithms

In the introduction to her new book, Hannah Fry points out something interesting about the phrase “Hello World.” It’s never been quite clear, she says, whether the phrase—which is frequently the entire output of a student’s first computer program—is supposed to be attributed to the program, awakening for the first time, or to the programmer, announcing their triumphant first creation.

Perhaps for this reason, “Hello World” calls to mind a dialogue between human and machine, one which has never been more relevant than it is today. Her book, called Hello World, published in September, walks us through a rapidly computerizing world. Fry is both optimistic and excited—along with her Ph.D. students at the University of College, London, she has worked on many algorithms herself—and cautious. In conversation and in her book, she issues a call to arms: We need to make algorithms transparent, regulated, and forgiving of the flawed creatures that converse with them.

I reached her by telephone while she was on a book tour in New York City.

Hannah FryPeter Bartlett

Why do we need an FDA for algorithms?

It used to be the case that you could just put any old colored liquid in a glass bottle and sell it as medicine and make an absolute fortune. And then not worry about whether or not it’s poisonous. We stopped that from happening because, well, for starters it’s kind of morally repugnant. But also, it harms people. We’re in that position right now with data and algorithms. You can harvest any data that you want, on anybody. You can infer any data that you like, and you can use it to manipulate them in any way that you choose. And you can roll out an algorithm that genuinely

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