MozFest 2021: The hidden dangers of algorithms

Karen Jowitt, Senior Library Assistant with Oldham Libraries, explains how MozFest 2021 informed her about the hidden biases within the algorithms we use in our daily lives.

This year’s Mozfest was the first completely online version of the festival and I was excited to be a part of it, if not a little daunted at the prospect as I wasn’t sure what to expect.  

I had come to Mozfest with the hope of broadening my knowledge about AI and algorithms.  There has been a lot of media attention over the past year about algorithms so I was hoping to learn more about them and how they are used online. On this basis I joined the session: ‘What is the future of data and AI – and what role will Mozilla play?’  It was hosted by Mark Surman who is the Executive Director of the Mozilla foundation and Sarah Aoun, the Chief technologist of the open tech fund and it put forward three very different perspectives on algorithms and how AI is influencing the internet. 

It was interesting to hear about the relationship between data and power and the shifting dynamics of trustworthy AI. Sarah made the point that we create AI to remove the human factor but everyone has unconscious bias which inevitably influences the algorithms we create.  This highlighted the importance of involving local people and their culture and history in building successful systems, such as language tools, as many languages are spoken but aren’t usually written. 

I learned in this session that there is a danger with algorithms too; one example being websites such as YouTube which uses algorithms to recommend videos to watchers. Some of these can be very damaging, particularly to young impressionable minds, and once this damage is done it can be hard to undo. Parents have reported inappropriate material being sent to their children, such as videos promoting weight loss and about anorexia, when all they were looking for were videos about dancing. Mozilla is working hard to create a more trustworthy AI, tools to make the internet safer and to get social media platforms to change for the better.  The session broadened my knowledge of algorithms and the dangers that they can pose.   

I now have a bunch of ideas to take back to our libraries such as the session creating a post digital audio quilt which has inspired me to create something similar with groups of library users online who can’t currently come into the library.  It would be interesting to see what story we could create and would be something which our reading friends group or a children’s readers group could participate in. I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of Mozfest 2021 and have learned things I didn’t even know I needed to know!