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Rogue Algorithms

By Steve Jones,

I have always thought that computers do some amazing things, but they tend to do what we tell them to do, even if what we tell them to do is not what we want them to do. In those cases we usually find computers are helping us make mistakes faster than ever before. As we automate and link more and more systems, this can become a bigger and bigger problem in the world.

I ran across this short link on a rogue algorithm that caused a fluctuation in a number of stocks. It looks like this was a case of poor analysis and poor QA at one firm, but imagine if we had some type of "update" released to a large number of companies? This type of problem could cause a dramatic short term fluctuation in the stock market, which shouldn't affect most of us in the long run, but you never know. If this caused a company to go out of business, and they were the company holding your retirement savings, you might feel differently.

This isn't necessarily a problem that affects just financial institutions and their custom software. This is potentially a problem in any business that writes its own algorithms. That includes many of our companies, and many of us. We write queries, reports, and develop algorithms that help "the business" analyze data and make decisions that can affect our companies.

This is worrisome to me, especially when we have companies that press for more and more analysis, with algorithms written more and more quickly to respond to business events. Success in this area often depends on the developer having an understanding of the nature of the business and the meaning of data, and strong working relationships with the business analysts. That comes over time, and is easily lost when employee turnover is too high.

I hope that companies are learning that there is value to retaining employees, especially those that work with data and have invested effort in learning more about their business. Unfortunately I think that it take a disaster like this for some managers to understand the value of retaining employees and their knowledge. Even more unfortunate is the fact some managers never learn that.

Steve Jones


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