A reading club with a view to the future

062 Ed Finn: What Algorithms Want

Analyzing the role of algorithms in shaping our lives and society, and how we can ensure their design and implementation serve human needs.

Ed Finn: What Algorithms Want


Algorithms are the invisible driving force behind much of modern life, from search engines and social media to finance and transportation. As we become more reliant on these automated decision-making systems, it's essential that we understand their power and limitations, and work to ensure they serve the best interests of humanity.


Title: What Algorithms Want

Author: Ed Finn

Publication Year: 2017

Publisher: The MIT Press

Length in Hours: 8 hours and 52 minutes

5 main ideas

  1. Algorithms are not neutral; they reflect the values and biases of their designers and data sources.
  2. The design of algorithms is a creative process that requires human judgement and ethical considerations.
  3. Our relationship with algorithms is a two-way street, as we both shape and are shaped by the algorithms we use.
  4. The rise of algorithmic decision-making has significant implications for jobs, privacy, and power structures.
  5. We must work to ensure that algorithms are designed and implemented in a way that promotes human values, ethics, and well-being.
Ed Finn: What Algorithms Want

5 funny quotes

  1. "The best way to understand an algorithm is to try to cheat it."
  2. "It's not easy being an algorithm. You have to make thousands of decisions a second and still find time to exercise."
  3. "The problem with algorithms is that they're really good at giving you what you asked for, even if what you asked for is terrible."
  4. "In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people for 15 minutes, thanks to the power of social media algorithms."
  5. "If you think about it, algorithms are like snowflakes - each one is unique, but they all look the same."

5 thought-provoking quotes​

  1. "Algorithms are opinions embedded in code."
  2. "We are building a world that is optimized for technological performance rather than human performance."
  3. "The only way to fully grasp the power of algorithms is to recognize that they are the newest form of cultural power."
  4. "In the algorithmic world, everything can be reduced to a mathematical function: friendship, politics, even love."
  5. "We need to cultivate an algorithmic literacy that empowers us to make informed choices about how we use these tools and what values we embed within them."

5 dilemmas

  1. The trade-off between privacy and personalization in algorithmic decision-making.
  2. The responsibility of social media platforms to filter and moderate user-generated content.
  3. The potential for algorithmic bias to perpetuate and amplify social inequalities.
  4. The tension between centralized control and decentralized decision-making in distributed systems.
  5. The ethical implications of allowing machines to make decisions that were traditionally reserved for humans, such as medical diagnoses and legal judgments.

5 examples

  1. Google's search algorithm, which shapes the information we see and influences our beliefs and decisions.
  2. Facebook's news feed algorithm, which curates our social media experience and can create echo chambers of like-minded people.
  3. Amazon's product recommendation algorithm, which suggests items for us to buy based on our past behavior and preferences.
  4. Uber's surge pricing algorithm, which adjusts ride prices based on supply and demand in real-time.
  5. The hiring algorithms used by many companies, which may perpetuate biases and discrimination.

Referenced books

  1. "Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism" by Safiya Umoja Noble
  2. "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy" by Cathy O'Neil
  3. "The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies" by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
  4. "Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing" by Marie Hicks
  5. "The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information" by Frank Pasquale

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"The best way to understand an algorithm is to try to cheat it."

Ed Finn: What Algorithms Want
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