My Friend, the Algorithm

Jessica Chan Ugalde ’18 was perplexed when many people on campus were shocked by Donald Trumps’ election win last year.

Even more, she was disturbed that voters on both sides had seemed convinced that only their candidate could win—most likely because Facebook and Web searches were telling them what they wanted to hear.

“It is immoral to limit users’ purview so much that you only see what you want to see,” the philosophy and computer science major says.

Perched on a stool in the Piano Room, she explains that the experience spurred her to seek a solution—to help create a philosophical roadmap for computer scientists, so people would get the facts they need. “We must establish ethical frameworks to guide the development of “intelligent agents,” she says, referring to the algorithms that bring us Facebook and Web news.

Last spring, helped by professors Sara Protasi, in philosophy, and David Chui, in computer science, Jessica applied for a Summer Research Grant to pursue work on her idea. Faculty members reviewed it, and she won an award as a Chism Scholar.

For 10 sunny summer weeks Jessica rose early, while her four housemates slept, read a bit of Malcolm Gladwell or Paul Coelho to get inspired, and headed down to the Proctor Starbucks with a laptop, books, and a scratchpad.

She read philosophy scholars and tried to focus their ideas, and her own knowledge of computer science, into a finely honed argument of her own. The breakthrough came when she read Princeton University philosopher John M. Cooper’s ideas on friendship. “The job of a good friend is to help you attain self-knowledge and a big part of self-knowledge is wisdom,” Jessica explains. “How to have a good life. How to flourish.”

Her solution was revealed in her research paper “My Friend, the Algorithm.” Jessica proposed that intelligent agents—just like friends—should have “free agency” to choose what to show you, and that they should help you attain wisdom. That means showing you what you like, and what you don’t like, or maybe never thought of.

The technical viability of a “friend”algorithm is beyond the scope of Jessica’s paper—but she believes software developers could create one and find a friendly “middle ground” between delivering users too much information and too little.

“Technology plays such a huge role, not only in our everyday lives, but in forming our intuitions,” she says. She argues tech companies should take part in philosophical discourse—and that they would benefit from it. Highly ethical firms could attract the best workers, and thoughtful debate would hone the critical thinking skills needed in their collaborative industry.

Today, there are signs of this happening. In recent years Google employed entrepreneur and philosophy professor Damon Horowitz as its In-House Philosopher (he has since moved on). Silicon Valley now talks about “corporate-humanists” and the need for a deep understanding of human behavior.

Jessica’s own goal is to write, and to shine a light on contentious ethical issues. Should she succeed, the computing world may get no peace until it finds the algorithm that is, indeed, our friend.

 

Shirley Skeel
Published Dec. 15, 2017