It’s been ages since I did any mini reviews, but look at me spicing up my blogging life lol.
Hello World by Hannah Fry
This book is about the power of algorithms in the modern world, their uses and their subtle influences over their lives. As a computer science student (okay, it’s a minor) I thought this was a fascinating book. I mean, we know that computer programs are behind all the technology that we use personally—in the apps on our phones and behind websites. But this was more about the algorithms in big-picture situations, looking at the ethics or wisdom of using them in things like medicine and criminal decisions. These aren’t aspects of society and life you would necessarily expect or want a machine being in charge of. Here are a few interesting things I learned:
- Someone once almost followed their GPS off a cliff, but often people inherently trust information from computers without knowing where the computer got it from. Computer based information (such as a biased search engine) can influence voting decisions.
- During the cold war, the computer-operated missile warning set off. The person in charge was supposed to go straight to his superiors so they could reply. But he mistrusted it, which got him in trouble but saved the world from a nuclear disaster.
- Having a clubcard registered to an algorithm encouraged spending at Tesco, and is credited as the reason it overtook Sainsbury’s.
- Computers have been trained to diagnose things like cancer, but they often overdiagnose. Humans often miss abnormal cell formations, but the two working together are very accurate.
- While several car companies have promised to bring self-driving cars out in the next 2 or 3 years, the difficulty is teaching the car all the unspoken road rules: slow down when there are children around, even if you don’t have to. Give trucks lots of extra space, etc.
- Many people say they’d want a self-driving car to prioritise the ‘greater good’ and save as many lives as possible, yet most people say they’d buy one that prioritises saving their lives as passengers over the lives of pedestrians.
- Algorithms can be used to predict where crime hotspots will be on a certain day, and send police there, which can have effects on crime rates.
- Computer programs are also used to calculate the likelihood someone will violate parole, influencing the judge’s decision to give them freedom.
- Algorithms and AI can make art, sometimes indistinguishable from the music or paintings humans could make (although this practice is still growing).
Overall, this was concise and interesting and painted algorithms neither as villians or heroes, rather as powerful tools capable of wielding harm or good depending on how they are used. I enjoyed that it focused on the uses of algorithms outside of where we would normally think of them being used.
Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell
This was a reread. My phone with books was charging, so I picked Shanti’s Kobo up on a whim and started reading this… then basically did not put it down until I finished (ah, the benefits of a day in a train with nothing else much to do).
I loved the internal dialogue. It just felt like so many thoughts that I have, packaged into an extremely relatable character. I’ve just come home for the holidays after a year away at university, and parts of Adelaide’s journey as she gets used to living at home and rediscovering the charms of her small town felt familiar. Most familiar of all was the wanting—not being sure what, but being full of dreams and plans and ideas, mourning and finding joy all at once. This book is so human, so enjoyable, and effortlessly readable. 4 stars.