Everything is becoming a black-box and that’s obviously a problem

Source: Wikipedia

One thing I learned while studying modern technology physics was to observe an object as if it was transparent. By picking an object up and understanding it’s functions you would be able at least crudely explain the basics of how that object works. Just to be sure tearing it up and seeing it’s insides was always a nice trick to check if you got it right and if not, at least by analysing the internals you would find out something new. All was pretty easy in analog days. With very little knowledge you could understand, fix or upgrade things to your taste. This is being lost more and more when we transition to a digital era.

If you would ever decide to give up everything and take a long journey around the world on a motorcycle you will probably end up going through internet forums to find out what is the best type of motorcycle for such trip. A common theme among such threads will be not necessarily in this order: air cooled, easy to fix, available spare parts. You see there is a big chance during a long trip for something to go wrong and there’s an even bigger chance that there will be no one around to help you so you have to be able to fix and continue the journey on your own. Yes, new bikes provide a more comfortable, smooth rides with all kinds of safety technological gizmos like ABS, auto transmissions and leaning angle calculations to assist you, but if something fails only geniuses that created those systems can actually help you and they are usually couple of hundreds if not thousands kilometres away.

In the field of software technology I was always fascinated by the magical button you would find on your browser called “view source”. Few clicks and you pop the hood up of the technology you are using. However, not everyone can be a developer and understand it. Mere mortals are left with consumer products sometimes good, sometimes worse, but with very limited options to modify anything. Basically the deal is take it as it is or leave it.

What is even more worrying that parts of the digital ecosystem can not be accessed at all. Usually core functionalities are hidden under “proprietary algorithms”. Neural networks after trained can not really explain why the outcome is as it is, the calculations (at least at this stage of technology) are in hidden nodes. Sometimes even parts of code is used to operate above the law or simply cheat as is detailed in latest Quincy Larson article. Complexity and sophistication of hidden parts of the code often will be used for even more sophisticated cheating.

Black-box problem is a trust problem.

The natural question arises should you be able to fiddle around technology? If it was already created by experts in the field, why would you want to intervene with your own crazy ideas. Full customisation can lead to horrific results. Remember MySpace profiles? Or image yourself in company’s shoes. Would you be with OK to fully disclose your latest great idea in it’s full glory? Competitors that have higher development capacity will copy it and make it better in no time. With crazy software patenting issues and lawsuits it seems the only way for company to have an innovation edge is to keep the “algo” closed and secret. Or the same consumers will start abusing your system in a way where you would not be able to have a sustainable business model. Therefore, I personally think black-box problem is a trust problem. As a company do you trust your users? As a consumer do you trust the company who is providing the service? Well… you should.

So what can be done better? Provide a limited but functional controls for the consumers. Provide an ability to adjust what’s under the hood without opening the hood. I love the way we executed such thing in my current company Adform. We use proprietary bidding algorithm to decide what price should we bid in a real-time auction for each banner impression. For a long period of time we would get complaints that our algorithm is not good or adjustable. Half a year ago we introduced bid multipliers — an ability for user to multiply certain values in our algorithm without revealing the actual workings of it. So if you are running campaign in let’s say France, you can adjust so we would bid 1.5 times higher on domains that have a .fr suffix.This way we not necessarily improved the performance of the campaigns, but complaints about inner working of bidding algorithm were reduced to minimum, which might indicate that our users simply wanted just a bit more control.

This has been the second article that I have written to practice my typewriting skills, meaning I have punched this text in one go without reading or editing it (only slightly), so apologies for any typos or logical mistakes.

Thanks for reading.