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The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems . . . and Create More Paperback – November 3, 2015
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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“The clash between humanists and technologists, between brain power and machine power, is an ancient battle. In his lucidly written account of how this clash has played out in past years and how it will unfold in the future, Luke Dormehl is a tour guide with the breadth of a scholar, the sagacity of a judge, and the clear eye of a good journalist. This important book deserves to be read, and digested, by all who wrestle with, and enjoy -- or worry about -- a world transformed by digital technology.”
—Ken Auletta, author of Googled
“This information-rich narrative is fascinating for experts and laymen alike. A great resource for anyone seeking to understand the intersection of technology and humanity in the 21st century.”
“This is exactly the type of book we need to be reading as society considers the computerized control of nearly all the systems that affect our lives.”
—Chris Dannen, Fast Company
“A perfect combination of journalism and scholarship ... An essential text for understanding the shimmering boundary between human beings and the machines they create.”
—Stephen Ramsay, author of Reading Machines
About the Author
Luke Dormehl is a journalist and technology writer. With a background in documentary film, he has contributed to Fast Company, Wired, Politico, The Sunday Times, and other publications.
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It was through sheer luck that the book I read immediately before this was called "Standard Deviation". In this one, the author describes how you can set computers to finding patterns in any mass set of data. The more the data, the more ridiculous patterns one can find. He gives dozens and dozens of examples. The one everyone is familiar with is the one where the stock market goes up when an original NFL team wins the Super Bowl. There was one fallacious one where experts erroneously concluded that living near a power grid caused illnesses and deaths.
The point I'm trying to make is that these two books seem to be at odds with each other. And I find Standard Deviation to be the more convincing case. Some of "The Formula" sounds so over-the-top to me. The patterns they think they find when trying to match people for marriage, the guys who look for patterns in their biological readings, this smacks of exactly what "Standard Deviation" talks about.
So, one wonders why I gave the book four stars. Well, just because I disagree with a book doesn't mean I have to give it a bad rating. It was quite interesting to read all these new developments in using algorithms, formulae, and algorithms to ATTEMPT to do these cool things. At least the author DOES point out the dangers to society in doing this.
The author of this book, Luke Dormehl, thinks algorithms permeate our business, if not our lives. There is a consensus that they are also both efficient and time-saving. But, what exactly are these great tools for problem solving? Algorithms are simply a step-by-step set of instructions for solving complex problems. While this may take a very long time manually, computers have made this process a fast and efficient option. Algorithms are employed in business, medicine, sports, security, and even romance. Here is a hypothetical example: Let us assume that Tom, a young man, is looking for a mate with appropriate qualities that suit his own. He would go to a company like eHarmony ( a real company ) which specialises in matching individuals for dates or marriage. The company would take down all Tom's personal qualities and requirements. Since eHarmony already has accumulated about 2000 names of young, eligible ladies, they promise Tom that they will try to match him with one these. Using computerised algorithms, eHarmony could easily eliminate all girls taller than 5.5 ft. (according to Tom's request), then delete all girls weighing more than 60 kg. Candidates could then be sorted according to whether they played tennis (Tom's favourite sport). Just one more specific instruction might reduce the viable options for Tom from 2000 to 10 women - a manageable number which could be handled manually through interviews, etc. Thus, instead of months or days, the whole selection process takes only seconds - at worst few minutes!
The above is one simple approach. Another uses self quantification, i.e. representing every person by a number which summarises his or her qualities, This makes it much easier to match it with other person's numbers even if the size of the group is in millions. One company (GenePartner.com) even depends on matching the genes of the two prospective mates. In the case of Tom, above, a swab is taken from his saliva and sent to the lab for a genetic profile which is then checked against the female group for matching. The cost: $ 249.
Can the algorithmic technique be applied to everything? The author asserts that Google, Facebook, Amazon and many others depend on it daily for filtering their contents. The Los Angeles police department uses it to analyse crime locations and predict criminal activities on a continuous basis. However, some problems do not lend themselves to algorithmic treatment. Among these are emotional issues, creativity, student evaluations, all of which have a high degree of subjectivity.
Of what benefit, then, is this book to the average reader other than general knowledge. As one concludes from the above, most algorithmic applications are of large scale institutional nature. Small scale algorithmic systems to solve small, daily, individual problem are unheard of. We as individuals will just have to continue to solve our problems heuristically as we managed before.
while i found THE FORMULA fascinating for the description of various people-oriented algorithms (eg, computerized matchmaking, prediction, criminology) - the author sputtered while trying to find a moral basis - maybe cuz he tried for one overarching moral judgement when each instance of each app's use should be judged separately
i suggest reading this for a glimpse at what is going on and what it suggests for the future of computers in our lives - for that - the book is well worth it