A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
We rely on the computers and the internet for almost everything these days, it is the backbone of our infrastructure, our first point of social contact for friends and associates all around the world, supplies our film and music choices and is a substantial part of the economy now. As the digital world permeates our life further computers are being used as part of, or in some cases the entire part of the decision process. For all those of you who laughed at the ‘Computer Says No’ sketch in Little Britain, life might not always be so funny now. The question that Fry poses in her book is: Who would you rather decide your future – an algorithm or a human?
In answering this simple question Fry takes us on a tour of the history of the algorithm, where and how they are being used and the possible implications of our dependency on them. We learn of the first algorithms that reached the point where they could beat a grandmaster at chess and how leaving human-like pauses disconcerted him. How sat nav can be a blessing and a curse, how facial recognition can spot the suspect in a crowd and how human error can ensure a decade of misery for an individual passing through passport control.
Every click you make online is saved an analysed by the government and private corporations. The authorities are seeking the ghosts in the machine and to a company, you’re just a product that someone can make money out of. Your future might be decided by a pigeon too as Fry explains in the chapter on health and how pattern recognition is being used to evaluate biopsy’s for cancers and if you have been really bad, you may not stand in front of a judge, but be sentenced by a computer that would not care one bit about extenuating circumstances; frightening stuff. Algorithms have been used successfully to narrow down the search parameters for those who have committed the most serious crimes and are being used to predict where crimes might take place, the first steps towards Minority Report… Even a subject like art is succumbing to the computer code, what you watch or listen to, prompts suggestions of what else to watch or hear.
To say this book was eye-opening would be an understatement. Fry does not go too heavy on the computer and technology in here, rather she relies on the stories that show how we are all affected by algorithms and the way that they are shaping our lives. This thought-provoking writing has a clarity about it that will make this accessible to almost anyone who picks it up. We do need to use algorithms to our advantage; I worry that we’re not at the moment and that we may reach a point where we won’t be able to control them.