Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World

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The rousing story of the last gasp of human agency and how today’s best and brightest minds are endeavoring to put an end to it.

It used to be that to diagnose an illness, interpret legal documents, analyze foreign policy, or write a newspaper article you needed a human being with specific skills—and maybe an advanced degree or two. These days, high-level tasks are increasingly being handled by algorithms that can do precise work not only with speed but also with nuance. These ...

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Automate This: How Algorithms Took Over Our Markets, Our Jobs, and the World

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Overview

The rousing story of the last gasp of human agency and how today’s best and brightest minds are endeavoring to put an end to it.

It used to be that to diagnose an illness, interpret legal documents, analyze foreign policy, or write a newspaper article you needed a human being with specific skills—and maybe an advanced degree or two. These days, high-level tasks are increasingly being handled by algorithms that can do precise work not only with speed but also with nuance. These “bots” started with human programming and logic, but now their reach extends beyond what their creators ever expected.
 
In this fascinating, frightening book, Christopher Steiner tells the story of how algorithms took over—and shows why the “bot revolution” is about to spill into every aspect of our lives, often silently, without our knowledge.
 
The May 2010 “Flash Crash” exposed Wall Street’s reliance on trading bots to the tune of a 998-point market drop and $1 trillion in vanished market value. But that was just the beginning. In Automate This, we meet bots that are driving cars, penning haiku, and writing music mistaken for Bach’s. They listen in on our customer service calls and figure out what Iran would do in the event of a nuclear standoff. There are algorithms that can pick out the most cohesive crew of astronauts for a space mission or identify the next Jeremy Lin. Some can even ingest statistics from baseball games and spit out pitch-perfect sports journalism indistinguishable from that produced by humans.
 
The interaction of man and machine can make our lives easier. But what will the world look like when algorithms control our hospitals, our roads, our culture, and our national security? What hap­pens to businesses when we automate judgment and eliminate human instinct? And what role will be left for doctors, lawyers, writers, truck drivers, and many others?
  Who knows—maybe there’s a bot learning to do your job this minute.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A look at the rise of algorithms and how they can be found in nearly every aspect of modern life. An algorithm, writes engineer Steiner ($20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010), is simply "a set of instructions to be carried out perfunctorily to achieve an ideal result. Information goes into a given algorithm, answers come out." The author examines what information goes in and, more importantly, what answers emerge. Although much of the narrative focuses on Wall Street and how algorithms have changed how stocks are traded, Steiner also discusses other industries, including health care, sports betting and even music recording. For example, the author writes about how an algorithm was used to help unravel a musical mystery: the composition of a unique chord struck at the opening of the Beatles' 1964 song "A Hard Day's Night." However, instead of using the story as a brief example of what algorithms can do, Steiner drags out the tale for pages, dissecting every minute detail. But in other sections, he glosses over some algorithms readers may be most familiar with, such as the one Netflix uses to suggest movies or the algorithms that connect users of an online dating site. Perhaps the book's oddest turn is the cheerfulness with which Steiner describes how algorithms will eventually replace millions of workers, pointing out that since June 2009, "corporations have spent 26 percent more on technology and software but haven't raised their payrolls at all." His advice for readers? "Get friendly with bots," and learn to write new algorithms. Unsatisfying survey of an issue that will be increasingly important in the coming years.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591844921
  • Publisher: Portfolio Hardcover
  • Publication date: 8/30/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Steiner is the cofounder and co-CEO of Aisle50, a Y Combinator start-up offering online grocery deals. An engineer, Steiner was pre­viously a technology staff writer at Forbes and the Chicago Tribune. He is also the author of $20 per Gallon, a national bestseller. He lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife, Sarah, and their children.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Wall Street, The First Domino 11

2 A Brief History of Man and Algorithms 53

3 The Bot Top 40 75

4 The Secret Highways of Bots 112

5 Gaming the System 126

6 Paging Dr. Bot 146

7 Categorizing Humankind 163

8 Wall Street Versus Silicon Valley 184

9 Wall Sreet's Loss is a Gain for the Rest of us 198

10 The Future Belongs to the Algorithms and their Creators 212

Acknowledgments 221

Notes 227

Index 235

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