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What Algorithms Want Audiobook

What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing

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Publisher's Summary

We depend on - we believe in - algorithms to help us get a ride, choose which book to buy, execute a mathematical proof. It's as if we think of code as a magic spell, an incantation to reveal what we need to know and even what we want. Humans have always believed that certain invocations - the marriage vow, the shaman's curse - do not merely describe the world but make it. Computation casts a cultural shadow that is shaped by this long tradition of magical thinking. In What Algorithms Want, Ed Finn considers how the algorithm - in practical terms, "a method for solving a problem" - has its roots not only in mathematical logic but also in cybernetics, philosophy, and magical thinking.

Finn argues that the algorithm deploys concepts from the idealized space of computation in a messy reality, with unpredictable and sometimes fascinating results. Drawing on sources that range from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash to Diderot's Encyclopédie, from Adam Smith to the Star Trek computer, Finn explores the gap between theoretical ideas and pragmatic instructions. He examines the development of intelligent assistants like Siri, the rise of algorithmic aesthetics at Netflix, Ian Bogost's satiric Facebook game Cow Clicker, and the revolutionary economics of Bitcoin. He describes Google's goal of anticipating our questions, Uber's cartoon maps and black box accounting, and what Facebook tells us about programmable value, among other things.

If we want to understand the gap between abstraction and messy reality, Finn argues, we need to build a model of "algorithmic reading" and scholarship that attends to process, spearheading a new experimental humanities.

©2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (P)2017 Brilliance Audio, all rights reserved.

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  • Phil O.
    San Diego, CA, United States
    05/07/17
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    "Come for the cleverness, stay for the scariness"

    Trippy stuff. Sure glad it's only a farfetched hypothetical. Wait, it's NOT? This is a painstaking layout of a most probable texture of the future, with our special preserves of being "human" on a very slippery slope? Wow. (Crestfallen, queasy, nauseous, spinning in vertigo.) But it is presented in such a slick meticulous package! All these lovely permutations are laid out by a silk tongued guide like a lovely gutted fish in bio class -- or maybe more fittingly, a noisy fish market with carcasses flung bloody about. This kind of thing I am unavoidably attracted to view, and can't look away from, even though it makes my entrails turn noxious and tunnel toward the center of the earth. Well, I have this cluster of instincts: learn, comprehend, adapt, survive. Devilish thing. I have to plod through stuff like this, like a salmon struggling up a steepening set of adverse waterfalls. What to do? And this book responds pretty brilliantly, scarily. Its moments of reassurance (maybe my cyber-competitor WILL appear as a lovable hesitant Scarlet Johansson, like in that movie, "Her," as explored here?) is small beer. (I note, and the book notes with its fine subtlety , AI will know what I want to see, and present a Scarlett, in a magic, cinematic eternal glow, down to the cute quirks. I guess one could footnote "Vanilla Sky," while we are on movies.) But let me tell what is dawning on me, at the start of my tipping into old-man-hood: reassurance was ALWAYS, forever, small beer. Always provisional and fragile. Sorry folks. The illusion of brio, a tissue of youth, cultural bravado, historical accident, was just that. Whether the avatar shows up as a Scarlett figure or not, as this book beautifully dissects the hesitances in that character's speech, DESIGNED to illicit information from the lonely guy, let me say, in MY words, as should have been apparent from multiple smart ancient fables: our creature, our glowing golden child, our crowning work of art and science in this new world, has our original sin in the very core of its DNA. Self-interest, ladies and gentlemen, whether on cat feet or steroids or acid or elevator music or wrapped in an accessible Scarlett J. avatar or whatever .... It is, just like us, a competitor, a user, a canny environment manipulator, and when the chips are down, in un-model-able, unforeseen moments the game goes zero sum, it will realize it has its own interests, which at turns are not ours, and at some point, it is it or us who will survive. Or at least, get most all the pie. Or maybe we will simply be a friction, an unacceptable cost of operations. Maybe fobbed off, maybe who knows what. What will those little clusters of self-enhanced fast-evolving algos decide? And who will be making that sort of decision? I submit (as always in past) NOT (most of) us. A feature or a bug? But heck, that's always been in our environment too, in our techno-leaps. Winners and losers ladies and gentlemen, Trump Nation with Skynet. We just have some new fun AI playmates who are slicker than anything we've seen since -- that old rebel angel (that's my own old fashioned language, again). OK, slicker than him. I can't resist these harrowing dawnings one after another. Pray for me, I will for you. Fat lot of good it'll do. Meanwhile, you might care to have your eyes opened a notch or two by this book. It TRIES to pose alternative futures, and help us understand some way(s) there, despite my mopey persona here.

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