Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine
Author: Hannah Fry (wiki link) Publishing year: 2018
Hello World is an awareness raising book highlighting how technology impacts our lives. We have surrounded ourselves by computers that collect and analyze a very high amount of data related with our persons. In order to understand how this can impact our life we need to get insight into how computer algorithms work.
Computer algorithms are ubiquitous in our lives. From GPS devices in car navigation to imaging computers in doctors office; from wristband personal devices that give sleep recommendations to personalized commercials, algorithms are so pervasive we sometimes fail to acknowledge their presence and their impact.
According to Hannah Fry algorithms are not inherently good or bad. The purpose and the intention of their deployment is the deciding factor.
How We Got Here
The era of the successful algorithms is traditionally marked by Deep Blue victory’s over Kasparov. We accept the historical chess match as the moment a computer program won against a human in a computing task.
Specialists use algorithms in many fields and professions: from health and crime to transport and politics. And we either hate or love algorithms. There is no nuance, no middle way. If we don’t understand them, we trust them blindly. Once we understand how they can fail, we think they are not good for any task. This books offers us a more healthy, middle way:
“The power of an algorithm isn’t limited to what is contained within it’s lines of code. Understanding our own flaws and weaknesses as well – as those of the machine – is the key to remaining in control.”
Usage of Computer Algorithms
The book describes a few fields where we are successfully and extensively using computer algorithms.
Data brokers are companies that collect data about us. For example, our Internet navigation patterns, our commercial purchases and vacation preferences.
The worrying thing is they sometimes are collecting data without our knowledge. Furthermore, it is easy to de-anonymize this data and trace it back to us.
The field of targeted advertising makes extensive use of this data.
Algorithms are also used in the justice system. For example, for tasks like predicting recidivism or predicting likelihood of a crime based on geographical location.
Currently computer scientists are also investigating the possibility of building a juridical decision system.
In order to make the challenges clear we can read about how people themselves are flawed. Judges also give sentences based on their own biases, like race and gender. Furthermore, prior experiences is always a limiting factor. Judges are not perfect decision making systems, just like a computer algorithm:
“But it’s not enough to simply point at what’s wrong with the algorithm. The choice isn’t between a flawed algorithm and some imaginary perfect system. The only fair comparison to make is between the algorithm and what we’d be left with in it’s absence.”
We are also extensively using computing in health care. One of the most known examples is image analysis for cancer diagnosis. Doctors are able to properly diagnose a type of cancer, after they have had years of training. A computer can help narrow down the list of images that need attention thus relieving the load on a specialist.
Art and Entertainment
In the domain of artistic expression there are algorithms that can predict how popular a movie or a song will be.
There are also famous attempts where artificial intelligence programs have composed a piece of art indistinguishable from the original artist they were imitating.
Algorithms are Neither Good nor Bad
The overall message of the book is that algorithms are neither good nor bad. We should not stop using them. Rather, we should try to understand their limitations better. We need to think of them as aiding a human decision, not replacing it. They can simplify a problem, or narrow it down for the human specialist to have the final word. Furthermore, they are fallible, but that does not make them useless.
“It may well be that, in the end, we decide that there should be some limits to the algorithm’s reach. That some things should not be analysed and calculated […] … there are some things that lie beyond the scope of the dispassionate machine!”
Caution when Using Computer Algorithms
Despite the neutrality of algorithms and computer programs, people employing them usually have an agenda. That is sufficient to make us weary:
“Just by virtue of some algorithms existing, we face issues of fairness that cut to the core of who we are as humans, what we want our society to look like, and how far we can cope with the impending authority of a dispassionate technology”.
Given this, we should not consider putting humans out of the equation.
This book is an eye opener without unsettling the reader. It offers a large array of examples of how computers are currently being used. Furthermore, it predicts the direction we are going to develop them in the near future. The book is easy to read and understand and it does not take a stand against or for computers. It rather cautiously explains what we need to be looking at when making these decisions.
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