From viral conspiracies to exam fiascos, algorithms come with serious side effects

A mesmerising, unaccountable kind of algorithm – machine learning – is blinding governments to the technology’s often disastrous flaws

Will Thursday 13 August 2020 be remembered as a pivotal moment in democracy’s relationship with digital technology? Because of the coronavirus outbreak, A-level and GCSE examinations had to be cancelled, leaving education authorities with a choice: give the kids the grades that had been predicted by their teachers, or use an algorithm. They went with the latter.

The outcome was that more than one-third of results in England (35.6%) were downgraded by one grade from the mark issued by teachers. This meant that a lot of pupils didn’t get the grades they needed to get to their university of choice. More ominously, the proportion of private-school students receiving A and A* was more than twice as high as the proportion of students at comprehensive schools, underscoring the gross inequality in the British education system.

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