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Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World Hardcover – August 30, 2012

119 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The Arab Spring of 2011 did not surprise analyst Bueno de Mesquita, who in May 2010 predicted that Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak would fall within a year—basing his prediction on the workings of an algorithm. As readers follow Steiner in his whirlwind tour of algorithm applications, they will marvel at the versatility of a mathematical tool understood only by a small circle of experts. Readers peer over the experts’ shoulders long enough to trace the decision-tree logic of an individual algorithm and to follow the cascading dynamics of the linked algorithms that drive the “bots” now handling everything from putting astronauts into space to matching compatible personalities venturing into the dating scene. Steiner acknowledges that a world reliant on bots must cope with new challenges—flash crashes on Wall Street, unemployment among accountants, dangerously powerful technocrats. Still, Steiner remains hopeful that resourceful computer whizzes will weave algorithms that will enrich and safeguard our future. An accessible foray into computer programming that has become a hidden but pervasive presence. --Bryce Christensen

Review

“[Steiner] excels in bringing a dry subject to life.”
Financial Times
"As readers follow Steiner in his whirlwind tour of algorithm applications, they will marvel at the versatility of a mathematical tool understood only by a small circle of experts. Readers peer over the experts’ shoulders long enough to trace the decision-tree logic of an individual algorithm and to follow the cascading dynamics of the linked algorithms that drive the “bots” now handling everything from putting astronauts into space to matching compatible personalities venturing into the dating scene…. An accessible foray into computer programming that has become a hidden but pervasive presence."

—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

“Algorithms are affecting every field of human endeavor, from markets to medi­cine, poker to pop music. Read this book if you want to understand the most powerful force shaping the world today and tomorrow.”
—Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist, MIT; coauthor of Race Against the Machine

“Christopher Steiner knows how to find terrific stories and tell them well. He has written a lively narrative with humans at its center. To be sure, its subject is important, but the book is also fun.”
—Randall Stross, author of Planet Google and The Launch Pad

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Portfolio (August 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591844924
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591844921
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,669 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christopher Steiner is the author of Automate This (2012) and $20 Per Gallon, a New York Times Bestseller (2009). Steiner covered technology as a senior staff writer at Forbes magazine for seven years; before that, he was a staff writer at the Chicago Tribune. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, Discover magazine and Skiing Magazine. He holds an engineering degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a masters in journalism from Northwestern University. Steiner lives in Evanston, Ill., with his family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

139 of 162 people found the following review helpful By Jijnasu Forever VINE VOICE on October 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover
For a book that is heavily publicized and garnered reviews in major business magazines, this book flatters only to deceive. Unless you are a total novice in this space, a reader is unlikely to find any new examples or insights from the author's treatment of algorithms. Most examples have been discussed ( in terms of technical content and impact on business models, society, behaviors) in magazines like Wired, PopSci and NYT technology pages many years ago. The dated references to recommendation engines like dating websites, those focused on music (Pandora, etc) are all superficial and provide no new insights or a critical appraisal of where those technologies are headed.

The author also overly focuses on Wall Street based scenarios to explain algorithms - he does a particularly bad job in representing algorithms as nothing more than fast calculators - that too, with a fundamentally flawed example based on option trading (I sincerely hope that the author never tried the trade he has mentioned in the book). That misguided example reflects poorly on author's understanding of algorithms and inadvertently proves one thing - algorithms are only as good as the thought that went behind its design.

Despite the superficial treatment, the author makes a few important points in the last two chapters on the need for more skill development in "STEM" disciplines and makes an argument that medical diagnostics is the next main area where algorithms are poised to expand. The discussion is very rushed and provides no meaningful action plan. Moreover, the author fails to acknowledge the vast amount of data that an individual is generating on a daily basis - and concepts of "big data" that could shape how new avenues for algorithms can evolve.
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54 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Kurt on October 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Steiner's approach to this topic is excellent, taking us through the widely acknowledged but little understood algorithms of Wall Street, to the Mathematical foundations of computer programming, and then to areas more likely to impact the lives of average readers, from commercial uses and finally to algorithms' potential uses in diagnostic medicine for both body and mind.

Unfortunately, the end result is a jumble of hyperbole, gaps in reasoning, outright plugs for certain companies, outdated examples, and just plain inaccuracies. Several readers, for instance, have commented on the confounding explanation of a delta neutral trade. I'm pretty confident that even the meatiest of the "meatheads" (Steiner's term) in the pit were competent enough to lock in a conversion or reversal (something that eludes Mr. Steiner). His explanation isn't just wrong, it entirely misses the concept of delta neutral, and so simultaneously denigrates both the conventional traders and the brilliance of Mr. Peterffy's arbitrage. This sad theme is repeated throughout the book. Steiner's world is one in which a handful of shining pillars of genius wade through a sea of crusty, intransigent morons, which although possessing a kernel of truth, grossly oversimplifies and thus does no justice to the push for and against the expanded use of algorithms.

I was also dismayed that although Steiner acknowledges on a number of occasions the dangers of runaway algorithms, he entirely avoids the far more subtle ethical questions of control. "No willy-nilly tests, no gut feelings, just data in, data out" says Steiner of a rather aggressively imagined Dr. Algorithm. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as neutral data. Which data are being used? How are they being interpreted? Who is making these decisions?
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67 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Nathan Wailes on September 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Length: ~220pp

Contents:
Introduction
1. Wall Street, The First Domino - this chapter tells the story of Thomas Peterffy, who was apparently the major innovator in the last 40 years in algorithmic trading. The guy is now a billionaire. It's a VERY interesting story.
2. A Brief History of Man and Algorithms - This spends a lot of time discussing mathematicians of the past, and how their innovations led to
3. The Bot Top 40 - Talks about how algorithms can be used to detect which songs are likely to be hits. Some great stories.
4. The Secret Highways of Bots - The main idea of this chapter is that the SPEED of algorithms is what makes them so valuable. The majority of the chapter is spent telling the story of how two guys spent $200 million building a new communications line between Chicago and NYC so that they could shave 4 milliseconds off the amount of time it took to communicate between the two cities, which gave a HUGE advantage in algorithmic trading. The plan worked and the guys made a ton of money off it.
5. Gaming the System - Algorithms in gaming (poker, etc.)
6. Paging Dr. Bot - Gives examples of companies that are using computers to replace a LOT of the work now done by doctors.
7. Categorizing Humankind - Tells the story of how NASA used algorithms to detect which astronauts would work well together during the 1960s/70s missions, and how this same idea is now being used to create algorithms that can detect your personality over the phone and connect you with a customer service representative whose method of communication matches yours. Very interesting.
8. Wall Street Versus Silicon Valley - Talks about how Silicon Valley and Wall St. compete for talent
9. Wall Street's Loss is a Gain for the Rest of Us
10.
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Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World
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