What Algorithms Want

Ed Finn

Published by
MIT Press
ISBN 9780262035927
RRP £24
Reviewed by Gabrielle Liddy

10 out of 10

Right from the start I must be clear that this book is not for everyone. If you are uncomfortable with concepts like emergence or unfamiliar with the history of cybernetics or expect to read about good implementation of algorithms then you might find it a struggle. On the hand, if you are interested in exploring the scaffolding of your future life by digital systems then this book will make you wonder about implementations of complex abstractions.

As well as being an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English, the author is a founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University and the book is in the tradition of those cross-disciplinary books about User Interface design, like Brenda Laurel’s excellent 1991 book ‘Computers as Theatre’. It could be illustrated by the Joseph Wright of Derby painting, ‘An experiment on a Bird in an Airpump’ - enthusiastic amateurs marvel at science while freaking out. Finn explores our historical relationship with not understanding how things work - he believes that most people think of algorithms through the metaphor of magic.

Algorithms scaleably solve repeatable human computational problems. Finn observes how the use of complex algorithms has changed how we think about what problems are computational and what solution means. We humans have changed the way that we ask questions in order to get better answers from Google, creating a cybernetic feedback loop whereby humans now often use the same kind of language with each other. Hashtag irony. With Google Search and the Adsense marketplace working together “magically,” the time that is taken to algorithmically determine the ads that will be displayed is the tax we pay to search.

In a very interesting discussion about crypto currencies, Finn imagines a time when all purchases are made via a blockchain. The blockchain, controlled by anonymous (but probably foreign) miners who add their transaction fees to their own personal fortunes, is independent of any one fiat currency. If the treasuries of individual countries are no longer required to issue money and cannot claim tax, then how will we fund schools, roads and the NHS?

However, this is not a doom and gloom view of the future or a warning about the Singularity. It is instead an enquiry into the kinds of AIs that humans have imagined in films like ‘Her’ and how the reality may be different as the interrelationships of algorithms are not controlled by a director. Google are now aiming to move to telling us what to do next rather than asking us what we want to do. No doubt we will be more productive, fitter, healthier and happier, if creeped out.

This is not a book to read quickly, the ideas are too complex, but I believe the effort is very worthwhile. Score 10/10.

Further information: MIT Press

August 2018