Word Wednesday: ‘Hello World’ by Hannah Fry

Hello WorldThis week, following on from my review of Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s Inventing Ourselves, I’m looking at another popular science paperback.

Hello World by Hannah Fry is a fascinating look at the algorithms that govern our lives. It examines the good and bad of machine learning and asks important questions, such as should a computer be in charge of clinical diagnosis or criminal sentencing, and can an algorithm be an artist?

What is Hello World?

It’s a super-accessible overview of how algorithms are used in our everyday lives. Written by Hannah Fry, Associate Professor in mathematics at UCL, Hello World tries to demystify exactly what an algorithm is and explain how useful they are. It also goes some way to explaining what algorithms can’t do, and how humans can be a little too slavish in following an algorithm’s results.

The book is broken down into several broad sections and explains how algorithms are used in a particular facet of society such as driving or crime. For a given topic, Hello World looks at the potential flaws of commonly used algorithms and examines how these flaws can be mitigated.

The book opens by explaining how algorithms wield power; how they can include or exclude. The first chapter also explains what an algorithm is and how they have evolved through the years. Hannah Fry sets out her stall early on in the book, with a brilliant example of how blind faith in algorithms can lead us literally over a cliff. Throughout the book, Fry stresses the importance of sustaining an ability to think critically when confronted by the results of an algorithm. Anybody who has come face to face with a 30-ton lorry on a narrow country lane knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The “Data” chapter explains how our data is captured by companies starting with British supermarket, Tescos’, “Clubcard” loyalty scheme. The beginning of the concept where we (the consumer) surrender our data in exchange for a small benefit, whilst somebody else, behind the scenes, reaps huge rewards. This, of course, leads to unexpected consequences, such as the infamous case of Target’s pregnancy marketing, the details of which are explained in the book.

From there, Fry goes onto to describe the Faustian pact we’ve made with companies like Facebook; our data for their services. Hello World explains what happens to our data, and the measures (now) taken to ensure it’s not exploited unscrupulously. Nevertheless, information is still power. (For an interesting novel account of this, do check out Fishbowl by Matthew Glass.)

The chapter closes with a dispassionate analysis of the Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 US election and, perhaps most terrifying of all, a look at Sesame Credit from China. This “rate me” app is like something straight out of Black Mirror. The idea of a mandatory state-run app, that measures your worthiness for certain strata of society, is chilling to the core.

Yet, it’s soon to be a reality.

The “Justice” chapter is chilling for entirely different reasons. Mainly, that human judges are remarkably inconsistent in the way in which they deal with defendants. Justice seems not only to be blind but also haphazard. Fry lays out how dispassionate algorithms can help (are already helping) achieve consistency across the justice system. Similarly, in the medicine chapter, advances in medical algorithms now offer great diagnostic capability.

But as all GeekDad readers know, with great power come great responsibility. Fry points out the flaws in algorithms, for example how the data they use may be unintentionally biased. Throughout the book, Fry describes how important it is we don’t allow algorithms to take over, stressing the importance of making them clear and open.

Many of the flaws she highlights are in proprietary systems. Odd results and peculiar predictions are very difficult to understand and explain if the code behind them is hidden for “business reasons.” In a world where algorithms often go unchallenged, this cannot remain the status quo. Some of what Fry talks about here, regarding facial recognition bias, appeared in the news this week.

Humanity, it seems, is looking for its algorithms to do everything; to replace human intervention entirely. Most notably, in the world of driverless cars. In the “Drive” chapter, Fry points out how challenging this really is. Instead, across all of the disciplines discussed in the book, Fry calls for a paradigm shift. Not for us to look to for algorithms to do everything, but to work in tandem with us, to improve accuracy, perhaps take away a little emotion where it’s not needed, but allow humans to add some in where it is. Hello World provides a compelling narrative for why algorithms and humans are a vital paring.

Why Read Hello World?

I was pleasantly surprised how easy to read Hello World is. Being a geek, I guess I’m predisposed to enjoying the book, though my formal education in math ended several decades ago and my understanding of computing is limited. I’m far from an expert in the subject matter of Hello World, though I did create my own “Hello World” style program, back in the day.

Hannah Fry explains her subject extremely well. She avoids esoteric low-level discussions of the math and code behind the algorithms themselves but instead focuses on the much higher level, real-world, consequences of the algorithms that are used repeatedly in our daily lives. Even when she does dig into the math, such as with Bayesian probability, in the driving chapter, her explanations are clear and easy to understand.

Hello World is a real eye-opener for those of us who want to know about who and what are orchestrating the rhythms of modern life. Algorithms, for good or ill, are often presented in the media with little background or explanation of the results they have delivered (or not delivered). This book helps demystify what is going behind the scenes when the numbers are crunched. For anybody interested in how algorithms work, and how they might evolve in the coming years, Hello World is a fascinating and easily accessible guidebook and well worth a look.

For those interested in picking up a copy of Hello World, you can do so here, in the US and here in the UK.

If you enjoyed this post, you can find my other Word Wednesday reviews, here.

You can follow Hannah Fry on Twitter, where she has possibly the best handle in existence, @FryRsquared.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review. 

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