Skip to main content

Outnumbered - David Sumpter ***

This book contains some impressive and important content - so I struggled initially to understand why I found it difficult to get on with. More on that in a moment.

Applied mathematician David Sumpter takes apart our current obsession with algorithms, information bubbles, AI and fake news, showing that all too often what we read about it is more hype than reality. Whether he is dealing with the impact (or otherwise) of Cambridge Analytica on elections, or the ability of algorithms to out-think humans, he shows that we have too often assumed that sales pitches were a reality: at the moment AI and its algorithms are rarely as good as we are told.

It might seem that this is the work of an academic with an axe to grind about the other mathematicians who are coining it in, but this is no unsubstantiated polemic. In many cases, Sumpter describes constructing a model to simulate the workings of an algorithm and demonstrates how feeble it really is. It was also fascinating to discover the way that an algorithmic presentation of 'also liked' amplifies (mathematical) chaos to bring out near-random winners - responsible, for example, for those YouTube stars where no one can understand their success.

I absolutely loved one section where Sumpter is trying to assess the intelligence levels of current AIs. Clearly they can't match humans. How about dogs? No. Bees, maybe? No. He shows that in reality, current machine learning struggles to match the intelligence level of an advanced bacterium.

Everything about what's in the book (apart from Sumpter's enthusiasm for football) seems a perfect match for someone deeply interested in algorithms and AI. So why did I not find the book particularly compelling? In part it's because it has quite a dry presentation. Unlike Sumpter's previous title Soccermatics, the style here is very measured and near-academic, presumably to add weight to the content, but the result was that some of it proved a dull read. 

It's not all like that, I ought to stress. I loved the line when considering what the Cambridge Analytica model promised: 'Democrats... could focus on getting the vote out among Harry Potter fans. Republicans could target people who drank Starbucks coffee and people who go camping. Lady Gaga fans should be treated with caution by both sides.'

I think the other issue was the 'negatives don't engage' syndrome. While it's important to know that algorithms and AI are far less powerful than we are generally given to believe in the news (and some books), it's hard to get too excited when told about something not being the case. It's a bit like the news headline 'War does not break out.'

The last thing I want to do is put people off this book. It really was interesting to learn how relatively ineffective AI is at this stage of its development, given how much news coverage has been given particularly to Cambridge Analytica, but also to the dark power of algorithms. It's an important message. I just wish the way it was delivered had been more engaging.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…