Ethics, Algorithms, and Systems [EE380 Computer Systems]

Ethics, Algorithms, and Systems
Wednesday, June 7, 2017 - 4:30pm
Gates B03
Robert Epstein (The Sunlight Society; The American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology)
Abstract / Description: 

The Internet has made possible new means of manipulating opinions, purchases and votes that are unprecedented in human history in their effectiveness, scale and clandestine nature. Whether closely guided by human hands or operating independently of their creators, these algorithms now guide human decision making 24/7, often in ways that have ethical consequences. Biased search rankings, for example, have been shown to shift the voting preferences of undecided voters dramatically without any awareness on their part that they are being manipulated (the Search Engine Manipulation Effect, or SEME).

Recent research shows that SEME can impact a wide range of opinions, not just voting preferences, and that multiple searches increase SEME's impact. New experiments also help to explain why SEME is so powerful and demonstrate how SEME can be suppressed to some extent.

In 2016, new research also demonstrated that search suggestions (in "autocomplete") can also be used shift opinions and votes (the Search Suggestion Effect, or SSE).

Demonstrating these possibilities in research is one thing; do search engine companies actually show people search suggestions or search results that are biased in some way?

In 2016, AIBRT researchers recruited a nationwide network of field agents whose election-related searches were collected and aggregated for six months before the November election, thus preserving 13,207 searchers and the 98,044 web pages to which the search results linked. This unique data set revealed that that search results were indeed biased toward one candidate during most of this period in all 10 search positions on the first page of search results - enough, perhaps, to shift millions of votes without people's knowledge.

Based on the success of this tracking effort, in early 2017, experts in multiple fields and at multiple universities in the US and Europe came together to creates The Sunlight Society (, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating a worldwide ecosystem of passive monitoring software that will reveal a wide range of online manipulations as they are occurring, thus providing a means for identifying unethical algorithms as they are launched.


Robert Epstein is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT) in Vista, California, as well as the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine and the founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. A Ph.D. of Harvard University, he has published 15 books on artificial intelligence, creativity, stress management, and other topics, as well as more than 250 scientific and popular articles in publications such as Science, Nature, Psychological Science, TIME, Discover, U.S. News & World Report, and Scientific American Mind, where Dr. Epstein is a contributing editor. Dr. Epstein is also the founding director of the Loebner Prize Competition in Artificial Intelligence, an annual Turing Test that has been conducted since 1990. A thought leader in the behavioral sciences, Dr. Epstein is interviewed by journalists between 50 and 100 times a year. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrREpstein. For more information, see .