The formula

Luke Dormehl

Why I looked at this book

Algorithmic analysis of 'big data' is touted as the new way of business. But experience suggests that the emails you get rarely get anywhere near predicting what you really want. I hope this book will look at the advantages and disadvantages of such analysis.

First impressions

The first chapter has a section on the 'quantified self'. Some people track the workings of their bodies in considerable detail. One person diagnosed his own autoimmune disease using biomarkers. Is this the way of the future, or will the medical profession react against such self diagnosis? I'd hope for some answers to such questions in this book. The other parts of the sample I read weren't so specific, and I'd hope that the book gives more details of the points introduced.

Main review

I felt that the first chapter, on the quantified self, was the most interesting. The rest of the book is mostly about the magic algorithms which know what we want in amazing detail. The trouble is that such algorithms just don't exist. Amazon, for example, sends lots of suggestions every day to lots of people. The laws of averages say that occasionally they will hit on what someones really wants. I buy a printer cartridge and they recommend an incompatible cartridge: that's hardly artificial intelligence. This book is written as if such algorithms can actually guess our deepest desires. There's a chapter on dating websites, which are a logical way to find a partner, but I don't believe that they will result in perfect harmony in relationships. The book also discusses the use of algorithms in the arts. Algorithms have been used to create works of art, but most of the chapter is about predicting what people will like in the way of movies and such. The author points out that this is likely to lead to all movies looking the same.hat's true, but it's hardly the first time this has happened. Fifty years ago high budget movies began to be upstaged by low budget upstarts. I feel that this book doesn't really recognise that a similar process operates in many areas of our lives, with most of the money being spent on 'formulaic' productions, but then a small group of people comes up with something new. This has very little to do with computers or algorithms.

There's a chapter on the use of algorithms in legal matters, and the dangers this might pose if the algorithm is against you, but then again the need to fight with bureaucracy when it has got the wrong end of the stick is hardly new.

The book might be worth reading as a warning of what might happen if too many of us buy into the power of algorithms to run our lives, but at present I don't think that many of us do. We accept the algorithms because they offer slight improvements on what came before, but I don't see them leading to any great change in the way we live.
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