The Tyranny of Algorithms
In “Player Piano,” his 1952 dystopian novel, Kurt Vonnegut rebelled against automation. For Vonnegut, the metaphor of the player piano—where the instrument plays itself, without any intervention from humans—stood for all that was wrong with the cold, mechanical and efficiency-maximizing environment around him.
Vonnegut would probably be terrified by Christopher Steiner’s provocative “Automate This,” a book about our growing reliance on algorithms. By encoding knowledge about the world into simple rules that computers can follow, algorithms produce faster decisions. A gadget like a player piano seems trivial in comparison with Music Xray, a trendy company that uses algorithms to rate new songs based on their “hit-appeal” by isolating their patterns of melody, beat, tempo and fullness of sound and comparing those with earlier hits. If the rating is too low, record companies—the bulk of Music Xray’s clientele—probably shouldn’t bother with the artist.
As we think through the role that algorithms should play in our lives—and the various feats of automation that they enable—two questions are particularly important. First, is a given instance of automation feasible? Second, is it desirable? Computer scientists have been asking both questions for decades in the context of artificial intelligence.
Many early pioneers reached gloomy conclusions. In the mid-1970s, Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT railed against depriving humans of their capacity to choose, even if computers could decide everything for us. For Weizenbaum, choosing and deciding were different activities—and no algorithm should be allowed to blur the difference. A decade later, Stanford’s Terry Winograd attacked the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, arguing that everyday human behavior was too complex and too spontaneous to be captured in rules. The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus said as much in the 1960s, when he compared artificial intelligence to alchemy. But Mr. Winograd’s critique, coming from a respected computer scientist, was particularly devastating.