The Power of Algorithms and Algorithmic Power: Conceptualizing Machine Intelligence and Social Structure

CSTMS Colloquia


March 1, 2018
4:00pm to 5:30pm
190 Doe Library
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It’s been just five years since a journal article about neural networks — a form of computer learning algorithm that uses large datasets to learn to classify input —  broke through to the popular press. The article described how Google researchers had connected 16,000 computers and set this network loose on millions of images from YouTube — without supervision. The system invented the concept of a cat, and how to identify it. Since then, there has been an explosion in decision-making software that functions in a similar fashion: churning through large datasets to learn to identify and classify, without being given specific instructions on how to do so, and perhaps more importantly, without the human programmers having an understanding of how it actually functions. The era of machine intelligence has fully arrived, and it is accelerating. Much of the engineering world and scientific press has focused on whether such intelligence is like human intelligence, or if it ever will be. In this talk, I will instead explore what having such types of intelligence in the hands of power — governments, corporations, institutions — means. These systems bring about novel capabilities to the powerful at scale, threaten to displace many human tasks (because they can perform those tasks well enough), create new forms of privacy invasion through their inferential capabilities, introduce new error patterns we have neither statistical tools nor cultural or political institutions to deal with, incentivize massive surveillance because they only work will with massive datasets, and more. I will explore some of the technical aspects of these technologies and connect them directly to core questions of sociology, culture and politics. This event is co-sponsored by CITRIS and BIDS.

CSTMS Colloquia host invited speakers representing a wide range of research interests from around the world. They are often live-streamed, and you are welcome to watch when they are.


Zeynep Tufekci

Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an affiliate appointment at the Department of Sociology. She is also a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and was previously a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at the Princeton University. Tufekci’s research interests revolve around the intersection of technology and society. Her academic work focuses on social movements and civics, privacy and surveillance, and social interaction. She is also increasingly known for her work on "big data" and algorithmic decision making. Originally from Turkey, and formerly a computer programmer, Tufekci became interested in the social impacts of technology and began to focus on how digital and computational technology interact with social, political and cultural dynamics. Her work has appeared in a wide range of outlets, from peer-reviewed journals to traditional media and blogging platforms. Her forthcoming book Beautiful Teargas: The Ecstatic, Fragile Politics of Networked Protest in the 21st Century, to be published by Yale University Press, will examine the dynamics, strengths and weaknesses of 21st century social movements.