Wednesday, April 12, 2017

How Algorithms and Authoritarianism Created a Corporate Nightmare at United

My Photo

"I was only following corporate algorithms"

Testimony given at a future war crimes trial (riff on the Nuremberg defense)

United Airlines forcibly removed a man from an "overbooked" flight.  The incident was captured on video by other passengers and the story went viral on the social networks.  United flubbed its response to incident, adding fuel to the anger.  The story went global overnight, sparking massive outrage (hundreds of millions of views in China, an important market for United).  The next day, United stock gets hammered, losing ~$1.4 billion off its stock price by midday.   What happened?

 This incident is a pretty good example of how rigid algorithmic and authoritarian decision making can create corporate disasters in an age dominated by social networking.


Here's how the algorithmic decision making created the incident on United.


  1. An algorithm is nothing more than a process. Humans, whether they know it or not, use algorithms thousands of times throughout the day. A simple algorithm could be "if the water in the bath tube is within six inches of the top turn off the faucet". Humans can think but computers cannot so algorithms are implemented through computer code. What happened on the United flight was unfortunate, but the bigger issue is with computers making life and death decisions. Consider a cruise missile deciding what target to strike when there is a flaw in either the algorithm or the code. Humans can override algorithms; computers cannot. Many of the flash crashes on Wall Street occur because computers did what they were told to do with disastrous consequences. This is a brave new world we live in, but not necessarily a better world.

    1. This is a brave new world we live in, but not necessarily a better world.

      Indeed, but I would delete necessarily.