By Chet Yarbrough
With the sub-title—How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World, Christopher Steiner’s Automate This is hyperbolic. Tech geeks are trending toward rule of the world but humans remain too complicated and diverse for this generation of code hackers to dominate the world. Social and political science have not reached a state of measurement and predictable outcome that reaches Karl Popper’s criteria for science. Popper’s requirement for empirical falsification is not true with social and political algorithms; at least, not as reliable, reproducible experiments. Social and political analysis, even with the use of algorithms, is not science.
Taking Steiner’s word that a Quant predicted some of the Middle East conflicts is not enough evidence to suggest algorithms rule the world. (Steiner notes that Mubarak’s ouster and Arab Spring were predicted in advance by a Quant.)
Steiner explains how algorithms are used for personality qualification of astronauts. The idea is to profile astronauts to mitigate conflicts between humans in confined quarters during space travel. The profile is to predict potential conflicts and wash out any astronaut candidate that might mutiny during a long voyage.
Profiling is not new. It is a technique used by branches of the military, by governments, and by some corporations. Certainly, it is more comprehensively done today with computers but a high degree of error remains. Steiner’s anecdotes of chess players, astronaut conflicts, and poker game predictions using algorithms suggest promise, but algorithm use remains a far cry from ruling the world.
Nevertheless, Steiner’s history of algorithm growth is a cautionary tale. At one extreme, there is a vision of a brave new world where privacy is impossible and human manipulation inevitable. At the other extreme, is Ray Kurzweil’s singularity where genetically enhanced humans gain algorithmic capability through a meld of human’ brains and bots.
Steiner offers examples of algorithms that have enhanced good and bad behavior in humans. Algorithms have improved customer service for aggrieved consumers by customizing responses for defective products and services. When an automated voice receives a customer’s complaint, an algorithm analyzes the nature (words and demeanor) of the customer’s aggravation and forwards a customer’s call to a person that can help resolve the complaint. On the other hand, the 2007-2008 financial crash is caused by financial derivatives designed by Quants using algorithms that multiplied the effect of human greed; i.e. millions of people were financially destroyed by unregulated financial securities, created by financial analyst’ algorithms.
Of particular interest is Steiner’s explanation of algorithm impact on jobs. Like the industrial revolution, the world’s work force will dramatically change with continued automation. More product production will be automated through algorithms that manipulate machines to do the work formerly done by humans. Steiner believes primary growth industries will be ruled by technology. No jobs will be unaffected by algorithms. Steiner notes that even medical services for common colds and routine visits will be served by algorithmic analysis and drug prescription services. Code hackers will be offered the greatest job opportunities. Call centers will become bigger employers but even those jobs will be increasingly handled by algorithms that minimize employee involvement. A conclusion one may draw from Steiner’s book is that middle managers of call centers, sales people for algorithmic products, teachers, personal service providers, and organization executives will be in demand but many traditional labor positions will disappear.
Steiner’s book is a recruitment tool for today’s and tomorrow’s code hackers. That is where jobs will be. Steiner suggests that young and future populations should plan to acquire basic math skills, learn to code, and plan for a future of automation and exploration.