10 unsettling things algorithms know about you before you do

It’s no secret that our lives are increasingly being ruled by algorithms.

From the music we enjoy to the TV shows we watch, everything is governed by artificial intelligence, machine learning and the algorithms they power.

Then there are the algorithms that underpin things like the way that cities are designed and whether loan applications are granted.

But what you might not realize is that the algorithms that surround us know more about us than we know about ourselves.

Here are just a few of the unsettling things they know about before we do.

1) Your sexuality

Sexuality is a complicated thing, and it’s not unheard of for it to take people forty years to figure out where they fit on the spectrum.

In many ways, that’s why algorithms can figure out our sexuality before we can. They have time on their side, and they can also tap into the huge amounts of data that we create on a daily basis.

That essentially means that while we each need to figure out our sexuality by ourselves, the algorithms we use can tap into the sexual awakening stories of our entire population.

Unfortunately, it’s not yet as easy as figuring out your sexuality by asking an algorithm to do it for you.

2) Your political beliefs

Every time an election comes around, we start to hear a lot about undecided voters.

Politicians know that their core voters are going to vote for them, and they know that the opposition’s core voters are going to cast their ballot against them. That leaves the folks in the middle.

The interesting thing about these people is that they often don’t know how they’re going to vote until they go into the booth.

But tech companies and their algorithms can usually make a pretty good guess.

3) Your religious beliefs

We’ve covered sexuality and we’ve covered politics, so now it’s time to talk religion.

Like those undecided voters that we mentioned, there are plenty of people out there who identify as agnostic. There are also plenty more who convert from one religion to another.

These two factors combine to mean that there are plenty of opportunities for algorithms to identify your religious beliefs before you figure them out yourself.

The really unsettling thing is what they’ll do with that information.

4) Your health conditions

Algorithms have been able to understand health conditions for years, now.

There was a story from ten years ago about how Target figured out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father knew, purely from her shopping habits. It’s easy to see how those algorithms have developed over the last few years.

This is especially true given that we all turn to Dr. Google when we’re feeling ill.

Soon, we won’t even have to do that. Dr. Google will just tell us what we’re suffering from before we even know that we’re ill.

5) Your financial health

We touched on this at the start of the article when we talked about how algorithms are used to determine whether to grant you a loan.

Like the last example, it’s pretty easy to see how they know this. If you only ever shop at discount stores and you keep on searching for payday loans, it’s pretty easy to tell how you’re doing for cash.

Likewise, it’s also easy to tell that you’re doing alright if you’re searching for luxury goods and ordering takeout every day.

But those are aspects of your financial health that you already know about. But do you know what your credit score looks like – and in real time?

Yeah, thought not.

6) Your communication style

We all have different communication styles. Some people are assertive, while others are aggressive or passive.

The thing is, unless you’ve been through some sort of communication training, it’s unlikely that you know which communication style suits you the most. I know I don’t, despite the fact that I’ve done a bunch of research.

Now, every time we post something to a social network, we’re communicating with people. So it doesn’t take a genius to see how they could process that written communication and understand how we like to communicate.

7) Your emotional state

As if knowing your emotional state before you do isn’t enough, algorithms can also impact it.

For example, there was a ton of controversy a few years back when it emerged that Facebook had been experimenting on whether displaying different content could affect its users’ emotions.

In fact, understanding (and affecting) our emotional state may be the thing that algorithms are the best at, at least from this list.

And if you ask me, that’s the most unsettling thing of all.

8) Your insecurities

We’re all insecure about something.

For me, I’ve always been a little insecure about my body, to the point at which I don’t wear shorts or swim in public. And you can bet that there’s an algorithm out there that knows all about it.

Now, the cynic in me says that algorithms are taught to figure out our insecurities for a simple reason – it makes it easier for people to sell to us.

If an algorithm knows that you’re insecure about your teeth, it becomes a lot easier for people to sell you a teeth whitening treatment.

9) Your music taste

This one won’t be a surprise to you if you use Spotify or Apple Music.

That’s because these platforms have built an entire business around being able to provide accurate recommendations on the music that you might like to listen to.

The result is a super powerful algorithm that can tell whether you’re going to like an album or an artist before you ever listen to it.

It’s something we take for granted and which just sits there in the background of our lives. But it’s super unsettling when you stop to think about it.

10) Your linguistic abilities

These days, every piece of software under the sun comes with a spellchecker built into it, and those spellcheckers are powered by advanced algorithms.

And, because those algorithms use machine learning, they’re able to adapt themselves based upon the person who’s using them.

That means that the software I use to write my articles knows my writing style better than I do, and it also knows the mistakes I’m most likely to make and which words I keep on misspelling.

It doesn’t just apply to when you write, either. Your Google Home or Amazon Alexa knows how good you are at speaking.

Conclusion

Now that you know a few of the things that algorithms know about you before you do, you’re better placed to understand the way that they impact your lives.

Remember that algorithms are here to stay and they’re only going to get smarter as technology evolves and we feed them more and more data.

That means that while algorithms may already know 10 unsettling things about you, it won’t be long before I could write an article like this with a thousand things on it.

And with that unsettling thought… sweet dreams.

Dane Cobain

Dane Cobain

Dane Cobain is a published author, freelance writer and (occasional) poet and musician with a passion for language and learning. When he’s not working on his next release, he can be found reading and reviewing books while trying not to be distracted by Wikipedia.

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