Machine Intelligence Runs More and More of Our World
A recently released TED Talk given by Kevin Slavin of Area/Code, a company that makes “cross-media games and entertainment”, demonstrates the extent to which our world is being shaped by algorithms. He uses an example of financial markets 70% of which are apparently ran by so called “black box trading” or “algo trading” where algorithms decide on what to buy or sell, when, and for how much. He mentions the “flash crash of 2:45″, a sudden 5 minute dip in the markets the cause of which is still being debated.
Then there are algorithms such as those used by Netflix to determine which movies you might like and show them to you, which apparently make up for 60% of all Netflix movie rentals. This reminds of another TED Talk by Eli Parises about “filter bubbles” created by Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms determining what you might like and filtering content they show to you on that basis. Mr. Slavin points out that this is algorithms effectively shaping our culture, not just technical and statistics data.
It is a very interesting talk, but as Kevin Slavin himself says, we can take this really really far. I think he covered only a small cross section of what is actually influenced or downright shaped by algorithms.
We have search engines like Google using algorithms to determine which pages to show when you search for something and in which order, which has not only made us incredibly dependent on this way of finding information (to the point of it influencing how we use our memory), but is actually dictating the shape of an entire industry, and can sometimes make or break entire businesses, as is evident with Google’s latest Panda series of updates.
If we consider what an algorithm actually is we realize that they are everywhere. All software are effectively a series of algorithms, and software increasingly runs just about everything that can in any way benefit from information processing, from your personal computer to your wash machine to entire city infrastructures to the internet itself. Software is no longer just the “soul” of what we generally recognize as a computer, but the “soul” of our world as a whole.
Kevin Slavin points out that what is often happening is that we are “creating the unreadable”. It is next to impossible to predict what these financial algorithms are going to do next, yet they run one of the most important processes in the world, but this doesn’t seem all that exotic or outrageous when we consider the fact that most of us don’t quite know how our own computers work; we simply see the results. Of course, the Free Open Source Movement has a lot to say about this, but while they may seek the right to see the code at any time they too can’t really change the fact that most people aren’t really interested in the inner workings of these algorithms so long as they actually work.
Yet these algorithms, whether we can or want to read them or not, are dramatically dictating our actions, as Mr. Slavin well demonstrated by pointing to the digging through land with dynamites or possibly building of underwater bubbles in the middle of the ocean because an algorithm says that’s where the servers have to be for most optimal financial transactions. Of course, these may be drastic actions in and of themselves, but influencing what we see and by extension what we think and how we act in our every day lives is already sufficiently dramatic. In other words these algorithms, while invisible and “out of the way”, are having an incredibly real effect. They are like memes that propagate between our minds to form a culture. Indeed, algorithms appear to serve as a major modifier of these memes, and by extension our culture, and our societies.
At the end Slavin’s says something striking, that in a way these algorithms have to be understood as nature. He means this in an evolutionary sense, as man interacts with nature, he develops tools that ultimately seem to get a “life” of their own.
But this is interesting in another sense as well. Fundamentally, all of nature in all of the universe is understood as nothing more than “information” and algorithms which arrange it, like variables being manipulated by functions in a computer program. That Earth revolves around the sun in an elliptical orbit is something that objectively just “happens”, but as we study the inner workings of this happening we essentially see an algorithm. The same goes for everything else in the universe. We often call these algorithms “laws of physics”.
It is through information and algorithms that we understand everything, and these understandings allow us to survive and thrive. You have to master an algorithm of walking in order to be able to walk, or an algorithm of acquiring nutrients to be able to sustain yourself, or an algorithm of science to be able to acquire and understand more algorithms that allow you as an individual, and human race as a whole to evolve. So to our minds, algorithms are nature and nature are algorithms. All of it is information, intelligence. If it weren’t we wouldn’t be here to talk about it, because we wouldn’t know about it.
This is why it is so striking to see us create algorithms which we then have trouble understanding. It seems like an early instance of the created “outsmarting” the creator, and ties very well to the transhumanistic concerns about creating a super-intelligence which we couldn’t compete with. Is this the beginning of this? It very well could be. The internet itself at this point resembles a brain, with all its billions of intricate connections sending signals to nodes which are our own computers, fed with activity by our own minds, which are already one way or another addicted to it. And none of us could ever hope to truly grasp how it thinks and what it thinks right now. We are, after all, mere building blocks of this new global brain.
So the big question is, how do we humans stay competitive? How do we prevent becoming mere dependents on this new intelligence merely bossing us around (because it thinks faster and more accurately)? Well, I suppose we still have that red button that says “Stop”. Curious how much we’re afraid to use it though. But if we don’t want to put a stop to it, then I think the time to upgrade ourselves is rapidly approaching. We need to be as intelligent as our machines because it is intelligence that runs the world.
Here’s Kevin Slavin’s TED Talk:
Image by Patrick Hoesly.