Will algorithms make life better?

The idea of algorithms has been knocking around my head lately.

The first was this tweet from Tim Dyson, CEO of NextFifteen, which I can no longer find which said something like:

‘Will algorithms make better decisions for us than we do or can?’.

And I thought: hmmm, that’s interesting.

The second stimulus for these thoughts is the excellent talk by Kevin Slavin on ‘Those algorithms that govern our lives’ which is absolutely required viewing for all.

So with then I’m accepting that algorithms are already hugely influential in my life, and starting to wonder about what life would be like as they become more present, more influential.

And when it comes to our behaviour, I often think about the things we do that we shouldn’t – they’re the interesting bits.

There’s the mundane stuff, like I eat too much, some people might smoke or drive when they could walk (I sometimes do both of these too!) or stare at attractive people, eat noisily etc etc.

And then there’s the big stuff we do that isn’t good for us – the partners we choose, the financial decisions we make, the workplaces and job crap we accept, the roles we play and the behaviours and habits we allow to lead us.

There’s a lot going on that could in theory be improved, if only we could help ourselves, right?

So we could do with some help, in theory at least. This idea that we could somehow Nike+ life in general, optimise LIFE itself is quite a promise (unless you’re healthily sceptical, which I’m getting to a bit later).

Then if I think about how algorithms – in a form to be described e.g. floating voices that follow us around or robot monkeys or computerised jewelery or whatever – started to ‘help’ us make better decisions, what would that be like?

Would they inform us of the full range of options? ‘Will, I see you’re about to order your seventh burger – have you considered the other options…?’

Would they interrupt and take charge? ‘Excuse me sir, but we’d like to cancel that seventh burger – Will’s cholesterol count is perilous’

Would they act ‘non-invasively’, insidiously influencing us FOR OUR OWN GOOD? Me: ‘Weird, I haven’t fancied a burger in ages. Just don’t even like the idea of eating a burger at the moment. Yuck. Got any apples?’.

Perhaps, being on-trend, they’d somehow combine visualization and gamification (add Transmedia for the full bonus point multiplier) and use these powerful levers combined to inform and influence our behaviour? ‘Calories consumed today – 2,587, 7% more than your daily intake, 45% more than other 33 year old males in your neighbourhood’ etc etc

So there’s the whole ‘even if they did exist, how would they manifest themselves’ that I’m sure will be figured out pretty easily.

But the thing that really interests me is then what would life be like in world where this happens universally?

If everything, every edge of our personality, every burr and rough quirk, was evened out like some kind of valium-for-behaviour, thanks to algorithms, what would society be like?

Would algorithms and then perfecting brilliance make life really better?

Would life really be more rich, more deeply satisfying?

Or would we be like GAP advert cut-outs, wandering through clean streets (this is making me think of Malmö in Sweden – a truly lovely place to visit), pastel-coloured pullovers drawn over our shoulders, sipping healthy volumes of mineral water and smiling like lunatics?

To me, that’s repulsive, shallow, uniform, repugnant. Just awful.

The last bit of this thought about algorithms brings me eventually to art.

In my philistine and fairly primitive mind I end up thinking, ‘what is the opposite of consistent and optimised and right-first-time?’. And I’ve probably got the wrong end of the stick but I end up thinking that maybe art is the last bastion of humanity – maybe this is what art is, the mess, the edge.

And then, just as I think I’ve figured it out – that algorithms will make life better (shallow), but not BETTER (deep) – I remember the art that Matt Pearson aka Zen Bullets creates or at least oversees. It may be worth noting that Matt also does not see this as art, but we disagree on this.

And so there it is, in all of its glory: art created by fucking algorithms!

And at this point I give up. I submit to the all-pervading algorithms. Will algorithms make life better? Shit, I hope so. I guess our only help is in influencing the definition of ‘better’ 🙂

6 comments

  1. Pete Burden

    Interesting post. Personally, I completely agree – a “Stepford Wives” scenario is to be avoided at all costs.

    I’d recommend Asimov’s Robot series (written in the 1950s onwards) to anyone who might like to understand how even a simple set of rules (three in that case, with slight deviations) can lead to all kinds of unexpected, unpredictable but ultimately human situations – ranging from murder to global domination.

    Maybe I read it wrong, but the sub-text that seems to be behind Slavin’s presentation scares me a bit. It seems to me to be a variant of the technological determinism that is so prevalent in society today. And, it seems to me, this is a determinism not based on rationality but on awe – a mix of wonder and fear. We’re attracted to and repelled by the “idea” of this kind of technology.

    But if we really want to experience awe – and don’t mind giving up some freedom of thought and adopting solely a mechanistic model – why don’t we consider the “algorithms” that have driven human evolution over the last 5 million years, for example?

    I don’t understand what suggests that we’ll give up our own human algorithms – those that drive us to be social, to survive, to enjoy real beauty and so on – for the nightmare world threatened by computer-based algorithms?

    Surely we will find ways *around* the computer algorithms (as even Slavin suggests, seemingly undoing his own argument) – and keep on keeping on?

  2. will mcinnes

    Pete – I really like your point highlighting the human algorithms that have driven human evolution. Awesome awesome point.

    These are just new algorithms 🙂

    But maybe it’s something about invisible vs slightly more visible, or in-built vs external. Either way these other new algorithms do seem to freak us out.

    Human algorithms. Very Kurzweil.

  3. Pete Burden

    Yes, and I think you’re right about invisible and more visible.

    So I agree it is worth raising people’s awareness of these – I liked that part of the talk.

    I really do value a sense of proportion where technology comes in. In my opinion, we should keep technology in its proper place – as something that helps us do what is really important.

  4. Tom Bailey

    Interesting post.

    I am fearful that we assume a sophistication with all this new technology that doesn’t actually exist…yet.

    The idea of Kurzweil like marriage of man and machine can be seductive but the reality is that all this machine lead algorithm science is currently very primitive.

    Why would we embark so wholeheartedly in a mission of empowering machines to make our decisions for us when, as a species, our own biological algorithmical (?) tools have proved so successful up to now?

    Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”

    • will mcinnes

      Hi Tom, I absolutely love the suggestion that this technology doesn’t even exist yet! A reminder to remember the crapness and hype of most technology 🙂

      The thing is, I think algorithms are of growing importance to our lives and I feel instinctively that raising my own and other people’s awareness of them is A Good Thing!

      But yes. Thanks for reminding of the seductive bullshit herein.

      W.

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