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AUTOMATE THIS by Christopher Steiner


How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World

by Christopher Steiner

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59184-492-1
Publisher: Portfolio

A look at the rise of algorithms and how they can be found in nearly every aspect of modern life.

An algorithm, writes engineer Steiner ($20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010), is simply “a set of instructions to be carried out perfunctorily to achieve an ideal result. Information goes into a given algorithm, answers come out.” The author examines what information goes in and, more importantly, what answers emerge. Although much of the narrative focuses on Wall Street and how algorithms have changed how stocks are traded, Steiner also discusses other industries, including health care, sports betting and even music recording. For example, the author writes about how an algorithm was used to help unravel a musical mystery: the composition of a unique chord struck at the opening of the Beatles’ 1964 song “A Hard Day’s Night.” However, instead of using the story as a brief example of what algorithms can do, Steiner drags out the tale for pages, dissecting every minute detail. But in other sections, he glosses over some algorithms readers may be most familiar with, such as the one Netflix uses to suggest movies or the algorithms that connect users of an online dating site. Perhaps the book’s oddest turn is the cheerfulness with which Steiner describes how algorithms will eventually replace millions of workers, pointing out that since June 2009, “corporations have spent 26 percent more on technology and software but haven’t raised their payrolls at all.” His advice for readers? “Get friendly with bots,” and learn to write new algorithms.

Unsatisfying survey of an issue that will be increasingly important in the coming years.