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June 2017, Vol. 6, No. 6

Machine learning algorithms make life easier -- until they don't

Algorithms control our lives in many and increasingly mysterious ways. While machine learning algorithms change IT, you might be surprised at the algorithms at work in your nondigital life as well. When I pull a little numbered ticket at the local deli counter, I know with some certainty that I'll eventually get served. That's a queuing algorithm in action -- it preserves the expected first-in, first-out ordering of the line. Although wait times vary, it delivers a predictable average latency to all shoppers. Now compare that to when I buy a ticket for the lottery. I'm taking a big chance on a random-draw algorithm, which is quite unlikely to ever go my way. Winning is not only uncertain, but improbable. Still, for many folks, the purchase of a lottery ticket delivers a temporary emotional salve, so there is some economic utility -- as you might have heard in Economics 101. People can respond well to algorithms that have guaranteed certainty and those with arbitrary randomness in the appropriate situations. But imagine flipping ...

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