Book Review: What Algorithms Want
Imagination in the Age of Computing
by Ed Finn
The MIT Press, 2017
Ed Finn is Founding Director of the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University, which sounds like an optimistic position, something imbued with both the vigor of the Space Age and the intellectual enterprise of the Enlightenment. A Center for Science and the Imagination sounds like a wondrous place, where each visitor is issued a clear plastic helmet and a working jet pack.
And yet, Ed Finn’s brilliant new book, What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing, is not only a horror story but the most invasive, unnerving, cold sweat-inducing horror story you’re likely to read.
It’s the story of machines talking to each other, learning from each other, learning about their environments and changing their decisions accordingly. It’s the story of machines creating the world around you, and, as the pages fly by, it increasingly becomes the story of machines growing impatient with the main impediment to doing all those things: their plodding human creators.
“Algorithms are everywhere,” Finn reminds his readers right at the beginning of the book. “They already dominate the stock market, compose music, drive cars, write news articles, and author long mathematical proofs – and their powers of creative authorship are just beginning to take shape.” Over seventy percent of the trades made on the stock market – trades using your pension, your IRA, the capital of your bank – are made by algorithms operating on margins of microseconds, far, far faster than any human could monitor, much less predict or understand. All of the marketing that touches your life, all the app-provided services, more and more of the health care you receive, the piloting of the planes and cars that carry you around, the malleable shape of the Internet you see, the impressions and imprecations of your social media, the news that reaches you, the books and movies that are suggested to you … huge chunks of the world around you is designed by algorithms and has been for some time – long enough, as Finn writes, to create a level of trust earlier generations would have considered unimaginable:
Sometime in the late 2000s, our relationship with computers changed. We began carrying devices around in our pockets, peering at them at the dinner table, muttering quietly to them in the corner. We stopped thinking about hardware and started thinking about apps and services. We have not just to use but to trust computational systems that tell us where to go, whom to date, and what to think about (to name just a few examples). With every click, every terms of service agreement, we buy into the idea that big data, ubiquitous sensors, and various forms of machine learning can model and beneficially regulate all kinds of complex systems, from picking songs to predicting crime.
Finn is a deeply intelligent writer, breaking down the complexities of his subject without simplifying them, and he excels at broadening his inquiries with metaphorical and cultural readings of industries as varied as BitCoin, Netflix, and video games.
But the further the book progresses into the wilds of its subject, the more tentacles are outlined and described in their reach, the more factors of everyday life are identified as algorithm-shaped, the more starkly horrifying the reading experience becomes. “We have no compelling evidence,” Finn writes, “to suggest that algorithms have intentionality, creativity, or any of the traits that one might consider necessary to an imaginative faculty.” And yet his book is full of such evidence, with algorithms arguing with each other about their preferred outcomes, one-upping each other in clearly competitive contests, and very, very often doing things their human creators don’t understand at all. Finn describes a world in which algorithms have become so complex that understanding them is virtually impossible, a world where algorithms have become so ubiquitous that abandoning them is virtually impossible, and a world where algorithms have become so powerful that defying them is virtually impossible. He writes with real energy about how humans are evolving toward “some consummation of the algorithmic love affair.” But the algorithms in his book aren’t interested in that love affair, and what they’re saying is, it’s not you, it’s me.