The full title of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule the World may intimidate some readers at first glance, but it is in fact a very accessible entry point into a complex subject. Christopher Steiner manages to take the inherently opaque topic of computer algorithms and make it palatable by going light on detailed explanations and focusing on the past, present and future of our society’s most complex systems and the gifted people behind them.
If you’re already familiar with the concept of an algorithm before reading Automate This then you’ll be able to jump right in, but the uninitiated may benefit from a brief explanation. An algorithm is simply put, a set of steps used to solve a particular problem. In fact, if you’ve ever followed a recipe or used an instruction manual to assemble your new IKEA chair then you’ve already used an algorithm. Today software engineers use this same algorithmic approach to program computers to do everything from choosing what stocks to buy and sell on Wall Street, to choosing the next track on your Spotify playlist.
While the idea behind algorithms is simple, they have quickly evolved into large structures involving branching logic, complex mathematical theories, and seemingly autonomous behaviors. It’s these algorithms; the ones poised to run our economy, entertainment and even our health care systems, that Steiner focuses on in the book.
The subject of algorithms can become very confusing very quickly when discussed at length. It’s this fact that makes this book so impressive. The author does a good job of straddling the line between being too esoteric and too simple( though he leans a little towards the latter) . If cryptic math symbols and detailed proofs are what you’re into, there’s enough information here to point you in the right direction, but most of the gory details are left out. What remains is a collection of entertaining anecdotes detailing how digital data and the algorithms that analyze it have stealthily crept into many aspects of our daily lives.
Automate This focuses initially on the high volume, speed of light trading algorithms that now rule Wall Street, but it eventually branches off into a wide variety of topics. It contains detailed accounts of how algorithms have surfaced in our social networks, health care systems, entertainment, and even how they helped unlock the age old mystery behind a famous Beatles recording. Along the way an ever increasing cast of scientists, entrepreneurs, geeks, and artists help to keep it all very interesting.
Unfortunately, Automate This does start to lag a bit towards the end but by the time you notice you’ll be nearly finished reading it. I have to say that the length and pacing of this book lends itself very well to casual reading. At only 220 pages most people will be able to finish it in a few days. Each example that Steiner lays out has enough interesting bits to keep the pages turning so you’ll constantly be compelled to look ahead to see what the next story holds.
While I enjoyed this book overall my one criticism is that Steiner tends to simplify the role of and importance of algorithms too much in some instances. He presents them as both the cause and the panacea for some of the biggest and most complex problems facing our country. Toward the end he gives the impression that robots, computers, and the algorithms that guide them are poised to replace our doctors, record executives, and even our classical composers. In some ways this is to be expected in a book about algorithms, but in reality we are probably much further away from computers taking over some of these tasks as Steiner would have you believe. Even with this minor gripe I’d still recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in computers and algorithms. Eventually it does deviate from what made the beginning of the book so good and that is the idea that algorithms are still at the core an expression of great leaps of individual human intellect and inspiration. It’s the fascinating people and stories behind the algorithms that will draw you in, and there are enough of these present to more than make up for a somewhat lackluster ending.