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

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …