Sunday 27th September

The Human Factor

You know all about algorithms, which have hit the headlines this summer, don’t you? Personally, I confess my ignorance. My dictionary tells me algorithms are ‘a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer’. They’ve been around over 4,500 years and contributed hugely to civilization.

However, like any human invention or device, algorithms are open to abuse and can  become our masters rather than our servants. As happened spectacularly this summer in the attempt to resolve the A level and GCSE ‘results’ crisis when inadequate input led to cruelly unjust outcomes for many thousands of students, even if teachers’ assessments were eventually given due place and the human factor took its rightful place as ultimate arbiter.

Significantly, computer-managed algorithms are coming under stricter scrutiny as the limitations of automated decision-making are recognised. Whilst we should be grateful for the massive contribution cyber technology has made to human well-being, it’s becoming increasingly clear that people, with their incomparable mental and emotional capacities, their critical thinking and potentially wise judgment, must always be in ultimate control.

But we well know that people like you and me do evil as well as good – either directly or through agencies like algorithms or robotics. The human factor is fickle, as the Bible consistently shows.

The early Genesis myths suggest everything in Creation is intrinsically good yet susceptible to the damaging threats of human misconduct. The prophets chastised their compatriots for their failure to heed the promptings of God. Jesus supremely recognised the fickleness of the human factor – how readily we clamour after material riches rather than spiritual, Mammon instead of God. The Bible testifies that unless we choose good rather than evil, people and planet inevitably suffer.

Today, the crucial choice remains. Each and every man, woman and child has to choose between attitudes and behaviour that cherish life and those that imperil it, between heeding and ignoring the ever present ‘still small voice’.

As we face gargantuan challenges – the pandemic most acutely, the climate crisis surpassing all others – we shall need super computers and commensurately elaborate
algorithms. But our greatest need will be for leaders and citizens infused with the kind of wisdom and love Jesus of Nazareth sublimely expressed and embodied. It seems to me, the human factor remains of paramount importance. What do you think?

Edward Hulme