As algorithms expand and replace human decisions, they make life easier and can make better decisions. They also have another, less valuable effect. They reduce users’ skill and decision-taking levels. So, when users have to intervene for the rare decisions that are beyond algorithms’ capabilities, users may not be sharp enough.
This phenomenon’s set out in Messy How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-minded World by Tim Harford, published by Little, Brown. He describes several examples where it’s happened, and they’re often catastrophic. This’s the territory that Big Data and analytics are taking eHealth.
Gary Klein, a psychologist, has researched decision taking and supports Harford’s view. In Streetlights and Shadows Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making published by MIT Press, he says when algorithms take decisions, users tend to stop improving their skills and performance. Algorithm dependency’s associated with people’s eroded judgement, increasing their algorithm dependency in a vicious cycle. Eventually users become passive and less vigilant. In healthcare, it can be catastrophic.
A solution’s to use algorithms to confirm healthcare professionals’ decisions. Where it’s been tried in aviation and meteorology, human decisions are usually supported by algorithms. This creates a role for algorithms of ensuring people haven’t overlooked something significant in a critical decision. It also keeps people in control and their decision-taking prowess sharp.
As Africa’s health systems adopt algorithms, it’s important they don’t become replacements for healthcare professionals. If they do, on the rare occasions when algorithms can’t do it, people who intervene might not have skills that are too rusty to be able to do it either.