Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fetch + Sit Up = Roll Over?

Dan Saffer at Wired suggests that much as our ancient ancestors co-evolved with a few friendly species of wolves so that today we have everything from Fido to those rodent-like things adored by old ladies, so too should we consider how we will domesticate a new partner on the scene: the algorithm.

To severely oversimplify, dogs came from the kinds of canines who figured that hanging out with the slow, clumsy and scent-blind two-legged creatures was worth it because they also could build warm fires, provide an astounding amount of food, rub bellies and answer the existential question about whether or not they were very very good dogs (Hint: It seems related to where one relieves oneself).

Some scientists say human beings changed as well, although our changes do not seem to have been as external as were those for dogs. Look upon the Pekingese, therefore, and be grateful.

Although Saffer notes that algorithms are not alive, many of them fulfill functions in our lives similar to the kind of help living companions provide. Dogs helped early humans hunt food. Your GPS helps you get lost much more quickly and thoroughly that you ever could on your own, and its lack of an "abandoned house used as a meth lab" notation means that you just might stay that way. In fact, algorithms have already begun changing human behavior. How many cars carry highway maps these days? Aside from such Luddites as your author, that is. I don't know, but if the answer isn't "Less than in 2005," I'd be shocked. How many homes have phone books?

So, Saffer says, we need to be in the business of watching how algorithms affect our behavior and judge whether or not we want our behavior so affected. They may promote welcome changes, or the changes may not be so great. But unlike our joint venture with canis lupus, we have a lot more ability to affect what kind of algorithms we use.

If we are any good at math and figuring out equations, that is. Which I will try once I get some scratch paper -- it's over there, under the stack of maps and Yellow Pages.


CGHill said...

Messrs. Rand and McNally continue to accompany me on lengthy road trips.

Friar said...

I bought several of the plastic folding maps and use them whenever on a long trip.