Archive for May, 2013

Book Review: Automate This

May 27, 2013

A family member gave me a copy of Automate This by Christopher Steiner as a gift a few months ago.  The subtitle of the book is “How algorithms came to rule our world.”  The book is a non-technical, fast, and easy read.  I did read a few interesting stories, such as NASA’s use of personality categorization algorithms in the 70s to predict which potential astronauts would work well together, or a math professor’s algorithmic dissection of Beatles songs.  The book particularly emphasizes algorithmic trading on Wall Street.  The somewhat non sequitur conclusion is that we need more science, engineering, and math graduates.

The main point of the book is that algorithms are pervasive and will become more so.  Toward this point, I think the author could have cast an even wider net, mentioning that algorithms are implemented in everything from elevator controllers to autopilots.  There is a cursory pre-computing history of algorithms at the beginning of the book that is (tenuously) tied to a Wall Street trading.

Rather than focus on algorithms broadly, the focus is patchy, hitting on machine learning, high-speed trading, and game theory.  Some mention of algorithms as might be taught in a “Analysis of Algorithms” course, covering basic topics like time-space complexity and decidability, would help prevent the general public from having a narrow-minded interpretation of algorithms.  Computer scientists invent, analyze, and implement algorithms every day, but much of that work is perhaps not sexy enough for a popular science book.

Incidentally, for the topics Steiner does cover, an excellent companion treating similar topics, but with a different focus, is Nate Silver’s (of 538 fame) book, The Signal and the Noise.


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