‘I welcome our digital minions’: the Silicon Valley insider warning about algorithms – while embracing them

​​Houses hide behind patches of subtropical rainforest in Brisbane’s western outskirts; horses graze paddocks and road signs warn of deer and kangaroos.

Nestled between a bend in the river and the foothills of the D’Aguilar Range, the suburb of Anstead may appear unsuitable habitat for a Polish-born business professor who believes that we must embrace the age of artificial intelligence.

Yet not all is as it seems in Marek Kowalkiewicz’s home among the gum trees.

“When I moved here from Silicon Valley my kids were about five years old and had no idea what an iPad was,” he says from the veranda overlooking his acreage. “There’s the technology-infused world I’m in 9pm to 5pm and then there is this slightly – on the surface – less technology-infused world.”

It is the first Monday of March and Kowalkiewicz is hours from launching The Economy of Algorithms: AI and the Rise of the Digital Minions. In his debut book, the Queensland University of Technology professor argues that a new age powered, in part, by non-human agents has been gradually reshaping our economy and society for years – in ways that are not always visible and little understood.

Kowalkiewicz says ‘the role of people is more crucial than ever’ amid the emergence of AI. Photograph: Dan Peled/The Guardian

Until recently, Kowalkiewicz admits that even he – the founding director of QUT’s Research Centre for the Digital Economy – could not see it for what it was. Algorithms, he then believed, could not be thought of as agents in our world, simply pieces of code following human instruction.

“I was wrong,” he admits in the book.

Once his eyes were opened to this new form of agency, Kowalkiewicz saw it had been affecting our lives for years, in ways that ranged from the absurd, to the transcendental, to the terrifying. And he, a man of supreme tech optimism, realised that if we want to ensure algorithms contribute to a better world and not a dystopian future, “the role of people is more crucial than ever”.

In this “strange” new economy that Kowalkiewicz describes, one which we have steadily accepted as reality, algorithmic managers assign jobs to ride-share drivers and, essentially, fire those with poor ratings. Hop into one of San Francisco’s robotaxis and you are being driven by an algorithm. Apply for a job, and your CV may be scanned by an algorithm.And this is just the beginning – new cryptocurrency trading venture capital funds are, from the CEO down, “entirely humanless”.

Kowalkiewicz does not fear technology will displace us. Instead, he argues, we live in the dawning “age of augmentation”. Where the arrival of the internet in the 90s and 00s ushered in an “age of digitalisation” – an “economy of people” in which individuals could compete against corporations – today a new agent is being empowered: the algorithm. But humans can retain and enhance our power – provided we learn to assert our agency.

In fact, he will contend later that evening – striding before an audience of about 100 at his book launch at the Queensland AI Hub in the nightclub district of Fortitude Valley, dressed in trademark “minion yellow” Nikes, jeans, fitted tee and blazer – rather than fear the economy of algorithms, savvy businesses and individuals are now able to conjure “superhuman” serfs to their bidding.

“I, for one, welcome our digital minions,” Kowalkiewicz says to applause.

Beside a weed-choked gully at the boundary of Kowalkiewicz’s Anstead acreage crouches a squat creature. From a distance, it could be a wombat. Kowalkiewicz calls this robotic lawnmower, somewhat ironically, “Bolt”. Though electrified, it is no Usain.

A robot cleaner prowls the pool. Inside, “Bumper 1” and “Bumper 2” – like Goethe’s enchanted broomstick – mop timber floors. Lights turn on when Kowalkiewicz enters a room.

“The moment we leave the house, the house starts to get busy – all the robots come out,” he says. “Robots that move, robots that watch, robots that listen.”

Minions want to be helpful, they want to work 24/7, full of energy right?

Robots, Kowalkiewicz says, are algorithms embodied. Though perhaps not to the extent that Kowalkiewicz has, most of us have invited robots and algorithms into our homes for so many years now they form a sort of wallpaper. It is not until we bump into them in the wild that we realise: algorithms with agency swirl all around us.

They even catch Kowalkiewicz by surprise. Trail running through the nearby Moggill forest on a wet and wintry evening, Kowalkiewicz slipped. Faster than he could assess his own injuries, a “digital minion” in his wrist decided the fall was serious enough to alert his wife if he could not respond within 20 seconds. Kowalkiewicz was OK and cancelled the call.

Kowalkiewicz’s book is full of anecdotes of such encounters with algorithms – though not all are benevolent.

Some are ludicrously incompetent, like the “hilarious bidding war” in 2011 between rival algorithms which saw one try to sell – unsuccessfully – a copy of a biology book about flies on Amazon for more than US$23.6m.

Other far more sinister real-world effects of algorithms are well documented. In the US, pedestrians have been mowed down by robotaxis; prisoners denied bail on the advice, in part, of software; in Australia, welfare recipients incorrectly and illegally hounded by an algorithmic debt collector that came to be known as robodebt. In the UK, students took to the streets in 2020 after being denied places at universities by the calculations of digital minions – their chants of “fuck the algorithm” proving a “defining moment” for Kowalkiewicz and an inspiration for his book.

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For a tech enthusiast with a background in software development, the students’ vilification of a piece of software seemed confused – the algorithm was simply following the instructions of its human coders. It implied a kind of agency that Kowalkiewicz initially rejected.

Yes, the algorithm was simply following human instructions, but its level of autonomy meant that in doing so it had real world consequences both “unforeseen” and – even in the eyes of its creators – “unjust”. Here, Kowalkiewicz came to realise, lay a new kind of agency, one that should not be left to its own devices.

Kowalkiewicz’s book is geared towards businesses and entrepreneurs and about how to corral algorithms to their benefit.

But while it is largely a guide to making money in the new economy he describes, he also implores us to not let it “spiral out of control”. The key to this, he argues, is asserting human agency through digital literacy.

“Rather than stopping [generative] AI experiments, we need to start GenAI education”.

What unites many of the misshapen and malevolent encounters between humans and algorithms, Kowalkiewicz argues, is our misunderstandings of what they can do.

An algorithm is a step by step set of instructions – “like a recipe” for a computer. While an algorithm may be very good, even “superhuman” at its job within those defined parameters, these minions require a more adaptable human brain to help them overcome unforeseen challenges.

Flexibility and interpretation, Kowalkiewicz writes, are skills “not easily reduced to coded rules” and so are areas in which humans can outperform algorithms – for the “foreseeable” future.

At his book launch, Kowalkiewicz is asked how we would go about developing these skills. Play, he answers: experiment with new technology, harness its power and learn its flaws.

Kowalkiewicz says some of his household appliance robots cost him more time than they save. Photograph: Dan Peled/The Guardian

“That’s exactly why I have so many robots at home – some of them are absolutely useless,” he says. “Some of them … are causing me to spend more time fixing them, dealing with them, than they’re actually saving my time. But there is no other way”.

Kowalkiewicz must rescue “Bolt” every few days when it gets stuck on a fallen branch and every few years he must replace ground cables that mark its boundary, lest the robot lawnmower disappear into the wild. And, like the minions of the animated franchise from which Kowalkiewicz draws inspiration, algorithms require constant human oversight.

“Minions want to be helpful, they want to work 24/7, full of energy right?” he says.

“But you look away for half a day and they start creating havoc.”

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