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

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…