Northeastern professor explores the harms linked to algorithmic systems—and what we can do about them

Christo Wilson honored with a medal around his neck
Christo Wilson, Associate Professor and Director of the BS in Cybersecurity Program, is honored as the 59th Robert D. Klein Lecturer in the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute Cabral Center on April 3, 2023. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Is Google Search polarizing the U.S. electorate? Does Twitter unfairly censor conservative voices?

Or how about this one—did Facebook contribute to the COVID-19 pandemic by spreading misinformation?

These questions, some of which have been hashed out in recent years during countless congressional hearings, speak to a growing societal anxiety about how “big tech” algorithms that are designed to help users navigate the web, influence life beyond the online world. 

“There is a large amount of concern about the impact of these algorithmic systems in our daily lives,” says Christo Wilson, associate professor of computer sciences, who delivered the 59th Robert D. Klein Lecture on Monday.

During the annual lecture that took place on Northeastern’s Boston campus, Wilson honed in on the need for greater oversight, collaboration and problem-solving as it relates to digital algorithms, which he says “run a significant portion of [our lives].”

The ubiquity of the algorithmic footprint on society today is almost impossible to measure—but it is immense. Wilson says that algorithms figure in everything from what kinds of advertisements and job opportunities people are presented with, to whether a person qualifies for a home loan or other line of credit. Even decisions pertaining to patient medical care are increasingly driven by algorithms.

“If you work for a company like Uber or Lyft or Doordash, you don’t have a human boss—you work for an algorithm,” Wilson says. “Algorithms manage this sort of virtual workforce.”Wilson’s talk, titled “Towards Transparency of the Algorithmically Mediated World,” brought this expertise in “algorithm auditing” —the practice of ensuring an algorithm is legal, ethical and safe to use—to bear, presenting case studies that touched on how systems that influence online hiring, web search and social media, for example, have real-world consequences.

Indeed, the negative aspects of algorithms has been a hotly contested topic in recent years, leading to many contentious encounters between “big tech” CEOs and federal lawmakers.

“Unfortunately, these hearings are incredibly disappointing,” says Wilson. “The CEOs deny these problems; they don’t commit to any substantive changes, and lawmakers really fail to act on what they have heard at these hearings.”

Wilson has spent an extensive amount of time in the world of algorithmic auditing. His work has debunked the theory that Google’s search engine creates partisan “filter bubbles” in which people only receive search results that reinforce their preexisting biases and beliefs. He also discovered that Amazon and travel websites sometimes position products and fares with higher prices more prominently than those that present better deals for consumers.

Much of the concern over algorithms, he argues, stems from an “information asymmetry” in which data about the public is prevalent, marketized and readily available, but then used by black box systems in ways that are little understood.

The solution? Greater transparency, Wilson says.  

“In other areas where there are powerful and opaque actors, one of the remedies is to leverage transparency,” Wilson says. “If you can increase transparency of the system, you can understand how it works; you can call bad actors to account; you can create a system of accountability. But that really has to be predicated on transparency. You can’t contest or challenge what you cannot understand.”

In this way, algorithm auditing is similar to the way “a journalist would investigate a politician to hold them to account,” Wilson says. 

“My hope is that by engaging in this kind of algorithm auditing, we can actually affect change,” Wilson says. 

The Robert D. Klein Lecture was established in 1964, and is given each year by a member of the teaching faculty who has contributed with distinction to his or her field of study. It was renamed in 1979 in tribute to the late Robert D. Klein, professor of mathematics, chairman of the Faculty Senate Agenda Committee, and vice chairman of the Faculty Senate.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.