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Hello World: How To Be Human in the Age of the Machine by Hannah Fry

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PUBLISHED BY DOUBLEDAY
REVIEW BY PENNY NOM

Now, I don’t usually read non-fiction, other than the occasional biography, so I accepted the offer of reviewing this book with slight trepidation. Would it be too scientific or academic for me? Would I have a clue about what the author was saying, and if not, how on earth would I be able to write a review? Well, I’m happy to report that this book is lively, witty, and really easy to read and understand.

So, what is the book about? Well, an algorithm, in its simplest form, is defined as a series of logical instructions showing how to accomplish a task.  By this definition a recipe – or even the notes I have to leave my husband on how to use the washing machine (apparently, washing clothes is not as easy as it sounds!) – are algorithms. However, in the context that this book is concerned with, they are usually mathematical objects translated into computer code. (Eek! Bear with me!)

The book first describes the different categories of algorithms: those that create ordered lists, such as Google and Netflix; those that classify – think about the type of ads you receive on Facebook, which are based on your perceived characteristics; those that find links, such as dating sites; and filtering algorithms, such as those used by Siri and Twitter. (In practice, most algorithms are apparently made of a combination of two or more of these categories).

The book then goes on to explain how each algorithm type performs its job, and is broken down into the various aspects of life that they impact, such as justice and medicine. This is interesting in itself, but what makes the subject more fascinating are the philosophical issues and moral arguments that the use of algorithms raises, and the possible repercussions that can arise as a result of their short-comings. 

Take, for example, the story that Hannah Fry recounts of the military officer responsible for monitoring the Soviet Union’s nuclear early warning system during the Cold War 1980s. I won’t spoil the suspense for you, (although the fact that we are here does give the ending away somewhat!) but I’m sure you can use your imagination!

Hannah Fry keeps the subject relevant and engaging by providing copious examples of how algorithms work well or how they have a positive effect on people’s lives, as well as the questionable uses they are put to, particularly in the world of marketing and data sales.

Reading this book can make you slightly paranoid – I constantly found myself seeing cynical algorithm use everywhere – what does my Smart Rider tell Transperth (and whoever they might share the information with) about me? Is when I am able to cross the road controlled by an algorithm? 

Hello World made me feel that we are as mortals in a Greek play, mere pawns of the algorithmic gods. Notwithstanding, or maybe because of, the paranoia-inducing aspects of this book, I would definitely recommend you read it. It’s entertaining, thought-provoking, educational, and may well change your life.

 

Find this novel in store at Planet Books. Ask the friendly staff for guidance too, and they’ll be more than happy to order you in a copy if it’s already sold out.