Disclosure: I was sent this book to review. All opinions are my own and I didn’t receive compensation.
When I was contacted to possibly review The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems…And Create More by Luke Dormehl, I said yes because analytics are something I know the basics about (due to my work in SEO and coding), but feel like I could learn a lot more about.
Why Your Next Cop Could Be An Algorithm
From predictive policing to the idea of virtual judges, algorithms are playing a bigger and bigger roles in law enforcement. Is an algorithm that will slow your car down once it reaches a certain level, or which can spot potential “deviant” behavior a crowd something that can help make laws fairer and more enforceable, or does it pose troubling questions about human freedoms—and move us closer than ever to a Nineteen Eighty-Four society?
The Politics Of Algorithms
When the “Occupy” movement failed to show on Twitter as a topic of interest, many people accused Twitter of censorship. While this may or may not be the case (the company insisted that it was not), it is certainly a moment of signal importance when we rely on algorithms to inform us of what is and isn’t relevant in our world. Algorithms are also heavily used in political-poll analysis (think Nate Silver), and even picking the most electable candidates. Far from neutral, algorithms have the possibility of defining the cultural and political conversation in the 21st century.
Do Humans Still Matter?
More and more jobs can be carried out by algorithm: from complex legal work through car driving. But a number of companies are striking back. Apple, for instance, has spent $3 billion on Beats by Dre, whose music business model is based on human-created set lists, rather than algorithmic recommendations. The recent startup OOLOO is a virtual assistant powered by real humans [as a alternative to Siri, Cortana, or Google Now]. Is there a human-powered backlash to the idea that algorithms really can do most everything better than a person?
Facial recognition systems are big business here in 2014: from supermarket checkouts to potential new ways of unlocking your iPhone. Earlier this year the Chinese University of Hong Kong developed a face recognition system which achieves a massive 99.15% accuracy rate when it comes to looking at two pictures and saying whether they depict the same person. (This, not coincidentally, was a big deal because it broke the human recognition rate of 97%.) But being the “password you can never change,” our faces and the attempts to quantify, recognize and link them to giant databases raise troubling ethical questions.
Some of the most interesting aspects of the book for me, including how machines make art or create other types of content that before now was usually reserved for human creativity. It also mentioned a study about pitting algorithms against seasoned trained experts to make a set of predictions on various events, like predicting students’ grades. The algorithms got it right 11 out of 14 times, which was more accurate than the experts.
While the possibilities of algorithms are mindblowing, I think reading this book has also made me aware that we need to be mindful of how much control we give them in our every day lives. Algorithms are supposed to make our lives easier (and more accurate), but without the human element, life often isn’t worth living.
Featured image via Pixabay