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Math Technology

When Algorithms Control the World 150

MTCicero writes "The BBC has an interesting if not apocalyptic take on the spread of algorithms into everyday life. Perhaps the author should have spent a little more time discussing how algorithms in everyday life have improved things like communications, medical care, etc... I guess doom and gloom sells more ads. From the article: 'At last month's TEDGlobal conference, algorithm expert Kevin Slavin delivered one of the tech show's most "sit up and take notice" speeches where he warned that the "maths that computers use to decide stuff" was infiltrating every aspect of our lives. Among the examples he cited were a robo-cleaner that maps out the best way to do housework, and the online trading algorithms that are increasingly controlling Wall Street.'"
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When Algorithms Control the World

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's the BBC

    • You beat me to it, but I suspect our cousins in the States don't understand the concept of a media outlet that doesn't require ads to support it. Indeed, the BBC is required (I believe by law, but I could be wrong) NOT to carry advertising within the UK. It might be a different matter for BBC content outside the UK, I don't know.

      • No, even over in the US, this Brit doesn't see any adverts for things other than the BBC itself. As expected.


        • by psmears ( 629712 )

          No, even over in the US, this Brit doesn't see any adverts for things other than the BBC itself. As expected.

          Actually you do sometimes get adverts if you're accessing the BBC news website from an IP address that's "outside the UK" - both sidebar adverts and little videos that play before the video you actually want to watch. (For my work I connect to the internet via a VPN that terminates in the US or in the Netherlands, and hence I get to see the adverts even though I'm in the UK...)

      • by tycoex ( 1832784 )

        So what you're saying is they really have no excuse?

  • by Toonol ( 1057698 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @03:58PM (#37195548)
    algorithm expert Kevin Slavin

    Algorithm expert? Is he an official algorithm expert? Credentialed in all forms of algorithm?

    I suspect it is as much a self-appointed moniker as 'Bill S Preston, Esquire.'
  • Hmmm (Score:3, Informative)

    by h4x0t ( 1245872 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @03:59PM (#37195558) Homepage
    It would seem to me that physical principles govern the world in which we live. All of which can me shown mathematically.
    Some goofy apes using maths to run their roomba or make money isn't exactly mind blowing of frightening.
    But then again i'm not the target audience of this story.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Neal Stephenson depicted this sort of thing in "Snow Crash" where the ancient Sumerian language controlled everyone (like robots) and everyone ran on algorithms and had no free will. We just need a modern day Enki to make everything speak differently... and I need to learn a couple thousand more programming languages.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Not on the BBC they dont its not commercial.

    • I think the website shows ads outside of the UK, but yeah, unlikely to be the motivation. Sensationalism for the sake of it, rather than for commercial reasons.
      • I'm not sure which is worse - sensationalism to create money through advertising, or for the sake of it.

        • Let me rephrase your question: which is worse, dishonesty for self-promotion or dishonesty for profit?

          Answers on a postcard.

      • by jd ( 1658 )

        Not sure it's sensationalist to say that algorithms with poorly-understood (by the users) feedback mechanisms can have unintended consequences. Nor is it sensational to say that people should be as competent with the tools they use in high finance as they would be if they were in any physical craft. There really should be an expectation that these people know more than just how to determine if the difference between two numbers is positive or negative.

        I'll agree that it was overplayed, but I won't agree it

        • The first Ariane 5 exploded on launch because a feedback mechanism for guidance had a sign swapped, again creating positive feedback.

          That's incorrect. The first ariane 5 exploded because of correct, reused ariane 4 code becoming incorrect in the new environment. More specifically steering code which results are used at the start of the flight and unused but left running afterwards. The code was still correct in start-of-flight conditions, but in the afterwards condition noticed speeds way over what it was supposed to see and triggered a security abort (ariane 5 is a tad faster than ariane 4).

          So no sign errors, no feedback, just correc

  • by LifesABeach ( 234436 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:02PM (#37195622) Homepage
    Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.
  • by rwv ( 1636355 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:05PM (#37195692) Homepage Journal

    a robo-cleaner that maps out the best way to do housework

    My Roomba is certainly not going to be taking over anytime soon. It drives around in a semi-autonomous pattern within a manually defined perimeter and has enough sense not to fall down a set of stairs. My house is big enough and the "virtual walls" are shitty enough that I close doors and throw couch cushions on the floor to regulate where Roomba gets to clean.

    Roomba is a tool in very much the same way a vacuum, broom, or paper towel is a tool. I choose to use Roomba not because it is particularly good at cleaning (it isn't) but because I take 4-5 minutes clearing wires off the floor and setting up Roomba's boundaries and then it spend 90-100 minutes driving in circles, then I spend another few minutes cleaning it's brushes and dustbin. This is more desirable than having me spend 20-25 minutes operating an actual vacuum (which I don't actually own... so first I'd have to go buy one).

    • The talk isn't about Skyne. It's about all those small, simple algorithms that slowly have taken important positions in our lives.

      The algorithms running on Wall Street are just tools too - they aren't going to turn themselves into HAL and decide to kill humans. But they affect our lives immensely.

  • by kotku ( 249450 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:08PM (#37195728) Journal

    I've tried introducing him to girls, guns and even light pornography, but he just doesn't maintain interest.

    What should I do?

    Concerned Mother!

  • Life is an algorithm.

    • Life is an algorithm that's not isolated from the rest of the universe I might add. The algorithms we employ often have layers of error correction to prevent mutation. Sometimes, a little chaos (bridging the outside) is necessary to improve on an algorithm. But being Human, we like to maintain control and not let nature meddle with the results we wish to achieve. Of course, that's not such a bad thing either depending on the objective.

  • by drolli ( 522659 )

    the release of the 8048. That the point when algorithms started to take over

    • by Genda ( 560240 )

      Oh you mean as opposed to the impact of the algorithms in the IBM mainframes that had already influenced a generation of American lives? Or perhaps as opposed to the algorithms in the Enigma Box which had a significant hand in ending global Fascism during WWII? Then again maybe you meant the algorithmic process the Curies used to purify radium, ultimately changing physics forever and creating completely new branches of physics, chemistry, biology and medicine? Perhaps you're talking about the 8048 as oppose

      • by drolli ( 522659 )

        a) my comment was not 100% serious.

        b) the part which was serious is the following: if you think about algorithms controlling the world around us directly for everyday life, in small and big things, the availability of micro-controllers was a significant point.

  • "Algorithms" (the word the author uses to mean machine controlled decision making) are just an available tool, like all tools there are examples of positive influence and examples of negative influence (the 3 incidents the author's highlight.) Like all tools people with free will choose to use it if they see the benefit. They don't come out and state "we should stop technological advancement b/c there is some risk," but that would be the natural conclusion of this line of thinking, which frankly is ri
  • by jmcbain ( 1233044 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:13PM (#37195814)

    I really don't see what the problem is. Algorithms are all around controlling everything we do. Like any technology, it is how they are used by humans that determine if their use is good or bad.

    Look at the list of the greatest algorithms in history [], as selected by SIAM (Society of Industrial and Applied Math) in 2000. Our lives would be completely different and worse without them.

    • Monte Carlo method
    • Linear programming solutions via the Simplex method
    • Krylov subspace iteration methods
    • Decomposition approach to matrix computations
    • Compiler optimization for FORTRAN
    • QR algorithm for computing eigenvalues
    • Quicksort
    • FFT
    • Integer relation detection
    • Fast multipole

    Since this paper was written in 2000, I would guess that the Google founders' PageRank should be included in there as well.

  • I'm sorry but algorithms already control our lives and always have. The algorithmic nature of the information and process of our universe that guide the function of DNA, evolution, the dissipative structures of clouds and galaxies all have aspects that can elegantly be seen as algorithms. As quantum mechanics and information science find themselves coming to a junction where the entire universe can be looked at as a remarkably complex computer, the ordered processes (particularly the processes we don't unde

    • I didn't RTFA, but I'm guessing the author isn't railing against algorithms per se, in the sense that nature uses algorithms, but against entrusting our decision-making to computers running man-made algorithms.

      And again, the problem with these computer-driven man-made algorithms is not that they're algorithms, but that they're created by people (and people often fail to anticipate the consequences of the systems they design) and executed by computers (which exercise no judgement over whether what they're d

  • by LordNacho ( 1909280 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:14PM (#37195854)

    See what I did there?

    Anyway, seriously, the article conflates automation with algorithm. Sure, when we have computers, we can create more automated schemes. But we've been doing algorithms from long before we had computers.

  • The article is not against technology, but it is showing that we are losing capabilities and culture and freedom when everything is controlled by machines. Every time a computer or machine eases our life we also lose a skill to do this very task. In the end this can make us so dependent on all those tools. While to some degree this might be a good choice and bring more comfort in other cases this will make us lazy. And when you do not use your body it will degenerate and if you do not use your brain it will

    • You still can't claim it's a bad thing. We're outsourcing a ton of our humanly actions and decision making to machines, but it's leaving us with more time to be human. #singularity
    • Sorry .. ain't buying it. No machine controls me. My GPS suggests a route, I decide if I want to take it. My trading software gives me the ability to set rules for trading, but I set the rules, it doesn't. And I can turn them off if I want to. My phone uses a remote system to set it's own time, but I decide to set the alarm for 5:30am, and then even decide if I want to hit the snooze, turn it off, or sometimes I just wake up 15 minutes early and decide to just stay up.

      NetFlix doesn't tell me what to watc
      • by prefec2 ( 875483 )

        It is good when you stay in control. However, many people are more controlled and overwhelmed by the technology they have. So I guess we can agree on that: You, me, everybody has to know how technology works and has to stay in control of it.

        The example: Automatic trading software shows, that we can create systems we, as humans, cannot understand and predict their behavior. This is why we talk about the market as it were an entity with its own will.

  • Little Known Fact (Score:4, Informative)

    by jjeffries ( 17675 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:23PM (#37196012)

    Algorithms, in general, were invented by Al Gore. Being a humble public servant, instead of naming his invention directly after himself, he instead spent his valuable time developing the very word "algorithms", a portmanteau of the words "Al Gore Rhythms".

    Don't be misinformed.

  • Much the same as I said on my blog at []. Call it an algorithm and it sounds mysterious, whereas call it a calculation or process and it's boring and fine. The human brain still has more storage and computing power than Google (I'm guessing here), so I probably use more complicated algorithms choosing my shirt than they do with PageRank or Netflix do with their recommendations.
  • Ultimately the algorithms we are writing are turning right around and programming us. When you try to find something out by googling it the answers we get back are reduced via algorithm, that's all we get because it's the best we can do.
  • This is Slashdot, yes we know what algorithms are, and we don't fear them by their nature.

    That being said, a good deal in our life is more automated than it was before, and while most of it isn't a big deal, as the case of Netflix guessing what movie you would like to watch tonight, or the perfect way to clean your living room, many of them are a big deal. The stock market is the most obvious example, where algorithms based on pattern matching are driving growing portions of the economy. The more algorith

  • Algoholism is a sad and serious problem!
  • ...he warned that the "maths that computers use to decide stuff" was infiltrating every aspect of our lives.

    Maths? In my life?

    son of a bitch!

  • What are the laws, rules, traditions and the other stuff that define a country, society, tribe or corporation?

    That's right, its all software.

    Not rigorous or precise. Not written in a programming language. Not always executed by a computer. Certainly not bug-free, but still, a form of software.

  • There's nothing worse than a TED talk.

    At BEST, they're mildly interesting, factually inaccurate, thinly-veiled agenda pushers presented by self-acclaimed experts who want money/attention/a line on a resume. 5 minutes after it's over you realize it's bullshit, wrong, or technically correct but inconsequential, and then you've got to think of some reply to give your friend who sent you the link, without straight out saying "This is dumb and a waste of my time. Stop sending me this shit - I don't consider yo

  • World changing algorithms:
      chocolate chip cookie by Toll House
      potato salad by Betty Crocker

  • I, for one, welcome our new electronic overlords!

  • algorithms taking over our lives? really? is that a problem? funny thing considering "algorithm" is just a fancy word for "a series of organized steps in order to deal with a particular situation" not much like a threat to us but... they put "cyber" into anything and its now a doomsday device.
  • Watch the actual video [] of the TED talk on which the article based.
  • From TFA - 'Meanwhile, a transatlantic fibre optic link between Nova Scotia in Canada and Somerset in the UK is being built primarily to serve the needs of algorithmic traders and will send shares from London to New York and back in 60 milliseconds.'

    Nova Scotia and Somerset - the trading capitals of the Western World. Perhaps building a link from New York to London might shave off an extra millisecond?

  • Why wasn't this vetted before being posted? I have to write that AI to screen this felgercarb out and quit reading slashdot
  • Algorithms are really nothing more than rules - and our world is FLOODED with rules. I'd say that this is to our detriment.

    A friend recently had a car part that should last years fail after 13 months (it wasn't a part really subject to wear-and-tear). Dealer response: out of warranty - pay to get it done all over again. It was almost impossible to get somebody to do anything other than follow the rules.

    Whether implemented by people or machines, our world is becoming dominated by rules. Rules determine w

  • FTA: "We are writing these things that we can no longer read," ... "We've rendered something illegible. And we've lost the sense of what's actually happening in this world we've made."

    So? If you documented your design process, requirements gathering, and especially your code, etc. then you have something other than "the algorithm" to refer to for sense in these matters.

    I really don't get what this article is about. Are they saying that A series of steps to accomplish a goal are taking over daily tasks?

Time to take stock. Go home with some office supplies.