A manifesto for algorithms in the environment

  • 2015-10-12
  • The Guardian

Algorithms – step-by-step sequences of operations that solve specific computational tasks – are transforming the world around us. They support sophisticated search engines, voice recognition software, online transactions, data compression, targeted advertising and self-driving cars. But algorithms also shape our biosphere – the global ecosystem and its thin layer of life on our planet that underpins human development.

The influence of algorithms was already coming into focus during the mid-1980s when the “hole” in the ozone layer was discovered. It turned out that the hole been overlooked for almost a decade because extremely low ozone concentrations recorded by monitoring satellites were systematically discarded by the computer’s algorithm. This delayed the response to one of the most potentially serious environmental crises in human history by several years.

Now, 30 years later, algorithms are all around us. They are embedded in artificial intelligence, machine learning, logistics, remote sensing and risk modeling, and permeate all domains of technology. As a result, they consistently and subtly shape human behavior and our influence on the world’s landscapes, oceans, air and ecosystems. Algorithms are critical ingredients in devices and services that affect our behavior – what we buy, what we consume, and how we travel. The “we” being those who can afford to consume and travel, of course.

Yet the growing influence of algorithms is truly global. Algorithms underpin almost all environmental monitoring technologies. They support the globally spanning infrastructure networks that continuously extract natural resources such as rare minerals, fossil fuels and living marine resources. And they even conduct millisecond automatic trades with financial instruments for commodities such as wheat, rice and soybeans.