Google, Facebook, Amazon: algorithms will soon rule our lives so we should understand them better

One of the most intriguing announcements in last week's Budget for me, as someone who spent many years working with computers and digital networks, was the creation of an Alan Turing Institute: the Chancellor committed £220 million of government money to be invested in "big data and algorithm" development projects.

Today, especially with the processing power of modern computing and enormous "big data" analysis, algorithms increasingly influence the media we read, the products we buy, and with whom we socialise. But most of us have no idea what they are. At its core, an algorithm is just a simple formula which must be followed to calculate the answer to a mathematical problem. (The word "algorithm" itself is derived from the eighth-century Persian mathematician Al-Khwa-rizmi- but the concept goes all the way back to the Greeks.)

Algorithms are vital to the internet because they help to order and arrange vast volumes of data at a scale and speed impossible for a human. Google’s famous PageRank algorithm counts the number of links to a page and assesses their quality to determine how important a website is. The quality and quantity of websites’ links to each other are compared and ordered; the more important websites are displayed first on the Google search page when a search query is entered.

Facebook’s feed prioritisation algorithm calculates which posts a user sees on his or her news feed, how close a user and the creator of a post are, how valuable the content is (with photos determined to be the most worthwhile, and plain text the least so), and how long a post has been up for. Nothing is left to chance: by weighing up these three factors, the algorithm decides what you see – and Facebook updates and improves these regularly. And you’ll all be familiar with Amazon’s algorithms that constantly propose annoyingly accurate recommendations of what books that you might also like to buy, based on what others have bought.

All are based on proprietary algorithms. Without its clever algorithm, Google is nothing. Better algorithms are at the core of Amazon’s future plans too. On Christmas Eve 2013, they patented something called a "method and system for anticipatory package shipping": an algorithm-based system that could potentially ship products before consumers place an order for them. Algorithms that make the best sense of data can earn companies billions. That’s why they are as closely guarded as the recipe for Coca-Cola.

There are remarkable social and economic benefits from being able to process data at much greater efficiency than humans. Some commentators believe that algorithm-led data analysis of NHS records could result in huge improvements in treatment outcomes, as we’d get a much better understanding of works and what doesn’t. According to the CEBR, the use of big data analytics across the healthcare sector could deliver additional revenues of £14bn from 2012 to 2017. Others have estimated it could cut the chronic care bill by £80 billion. Already, at the University of California San Francisco’s new medical centre, an algorithmically operated robot runs a fully automated hospital pharmacy. The dispensing room is sterile and secure, and the algorithm, having prepared hundreds of thousands of prescriptions, is yet to make a mistake.

However, life by algorithm brings worries too. Evgeny Morozov thinks all of this algorithmic analysis of personal information on a massive scale amounts to an incremental erosion of privacy by private companies and the state, and could even end up in Minority Report-style preventive policing. Others, like Filter Bubble author Eli Pariser, believe that by trying to perfectly predict our preferences with his search function, Google limits our opportunities for serendipity, discovery, exploration – we end up reading and watching the same things, having our horizons slowly narrowed. Around half of all trading on the world’s markets are today performed by computer algorithms, and are capable of incredible feats of financial mathematics at speeds measured in milliseconds: but errors are also magnified. In May 2010, American stock markets trended down and then crashed in the second largest swing in the history of the Dow Jones Index. Subsequent analysis showed this "Flash Crash" – which was quickly recovered – was caused by the aggressive activity of algorithmic traders.

Algorithms rule the world, and we still don’t really know much about them. Some of this is extremely promising. But there are also serious political, cultural, economic and social consequences when these clever calculations hold so much sway over what we information we encounter and how. As Turing put it in his 1950 masterpiece Computing Machinery and Intelligence: "We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done." A bit more research into the human side wouldn’t go a miss. Fortunately, I know just the place.

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At Last The Left's Politically Correct Agenda Is Being Questioned - We Can Discuss Poverty, Race and Single Patenthood
With Germany's leader Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron both recently declaring multiculturalism dead and many commentators starting to question the Politically Correct orthodoxy on issues like race, sexuality and single parent families are we al last smashing down the barrier that has prevented the sensible policies on many social problems being adopted.
American society is absolutely FUBAR. I was looking at an American site today where the loony left (or liberals as they insist on calling themselves) had beenquick to blame "the gun crazy religious right" and in particular Sarah Palin for the atrocity. When it becan to emerge that the gunman was a crazy, obsessive loner who may have been associated with left wing ...

Liberal? What Does That Mean?
What is a liberal? Is it something to do with the kind of politically correct thinking that obsesses over minority rights while seeking to marginalise mainstream society? Is liberalism an authoritarian system that seeks to impose politically correct left wing ideology on everybody. Or is a liberal, as is argued here, a very respectable political postion whose name has been usurped by people reluctant to acknowledge their inner Nazi.

Freaky Frankenstein Fishes
Once again we find ouselves questioning the sanctity of science as a new scheme to farm grenetically modified (G.M. salmon that grow to twice the size of a normal adult salmon in half the time nears approval by the United States F.D.A.. It this another case of scientists blinding themselves with science and failing to see the very obvious flaws in the plan?

The Growing Problem Of Rising Food Prices
While the warmists rant about carbon and the Church of Scienceology Cult rave about climate science. there are threee real and immediate problems facing us that nobody is talking about. These are overpopulation, water shortage and food price inflation. This article deals with food prices, links at the bottom lead to our posts on population and water scarcity.
Equalities Bill Discriminates Against Everybody Equally
The Equalities Bill, passed by the previous Labour government before they were ejected from power becomes law today. This farrago is typical of the imbecilic mindset of the self righteous hypocrites who style themselves the progressive left. Presented as a law in support of equality in the workplace , in this era of pandemic joblessness and perpetual financial crisis it is nothing but an attack on the businesses that provide the real, wealth producing, revenue generating jobs in the private sector.
Going Halal In Harrow - Going Gay In Rome
As America divides politically again over plans to build a Muslim centre with prayer room (its not a Mosque OK) close to the site of the World Trade Centre destroyed in 2001 by Muslim Terrorists, Britain has a few divisions of its own brewing on a smaller scale of course. One involves Muslims and Halal meat in schools, in the other the gay rights lobby, famed for demanding tolerance, are showing no tolerance towards Roman Catholic religious principles.

Not Proud To Be British
As the war in Afghanistan draws to its inevitable conclusion, a futile stalemate we must again question the conflation of patriotism and balls out politics that drive nations to war. The NATO allies were never going to achieve anything in Afghanistan, the Afghans hate foreigners and the war, Bush's revenge for 9/11 became Obama's war when the new President needed to show America he could be tough on Muslim states. In his best known poem Wilfred Owen wrote of that charnel house war: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / to children ardent for some desperate glory / the old lie, dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori. (it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country)

The Pursuit Of Mediocrity by fatsally.
SATS test, introduced in 1993, were supposed to meaure a pupil's progress through the education system from junior to senior school and ensure every child was fulfilling their potential. Now we see the government constantly lowering standards in order to ensure enough pupils from each school are reaching government imposed targets.

Oh Brave New World
In common with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, forever imprinted on the minds of my generation because of the cover image of a military boot grinding on a human face, Brave New World was a book that changed the way we viewed the world we lived in. In many ways it inspired aspects of the social revolution of the 1960s as people shrugged off the social controls that had imposed such restrictive conventions on western society.

FILTH! The Mary Whitehouse Effect
Advance publicity for “FILTH!” a dramatised version of the Mary Whitehouse story starring Julie Walters and coming (oops, pardon!) to a television near you has predictably aroused (oops, pardon!) the holier-than-thou brigade to start ranting about ... any mention of “FILTH!” in the media tends to make the legions of the narrow minded come over Mary Whitehouse (oops, pardon!).

Gay Minister and The Lib Dem Closet
Strange that the party responsibe for pushing through the law that decriminalised homosexuality should have had three senior MPs in the past decade who preferred to stay in the closet. Or is it? The gay mafia is so active in politics a desire to stay out of the limelight they generate is understandable...

Imposing Orthodoxy By Stealth: Big Brother And Your Shopping Habits
Subtle influences are at work to change the way you shop and thus the way you live. Is this manipulation driven purely by the profit motive or are more sinister motives involved?

The Power Of Positive.
There are many cod philosophies based on positive thinking. But when does positive thinking stop and self delusion start. Are the positive addicts really trying to help with their positive thinking tips or are they really just trying to share their addiction and draw you into their bubble of unreality. Ian R Thorpe bursts the positive thinking bubble... Epitaph For New Labour.
Several hours before polls close on general election day Ian R Thorpe pre-empts the result by publishing an epitaph for the wretched "New Labour" project which led the once great Labour Party to aandon any pretence of standing for anything except the interests of its leaders and paymaster and the gaining and keeping of power at any price. So arrogant has Labour become, so contemptuous of their working class core vote, the people who put the labour into Labour Party, that they are now he party of wealth and privilege, to the autoritarian right of the Conservatives while the Liberal Democrats are the truly progressive force on the left.



Internet Access As A Human Right?
A survey carried out by the BBC found a majority of people around the world believe internet access should be a basic human right. We suspect a bit of statistical rigging because the majority of people in the world live below the poverty line and probably have more urgent priorities than surfing the net.


Get On Board The Athest Bus


A campaign by british atheists to raise money for a campaign to advertise atheism caused some guffaws, particularly from the non-evangelical wing of the British atheist community. Ad vertising the non - existence of God has about as much relevance as advertising that all soap powders are pretty much the same or that self control is a batter way to keep your weight stable than miracle weight loss products. If people believe in God they will just react scornfully. If they don't believe in God why spend money telling them he/ she/ it does not exist. And if they could not give a flying fuck either way....... well they couldn't give a fuck either way.


Devaluation By Degrees


A Degree used to be epitome of higher education, the indicator of academic excellence rather than vocational skills. With the proliferation of Universities and the Pick - And - Mix nature of many degree courses, this article asks if the University Degree is being devalued and the university courses downgraded to mere further education as the divinding line between academic degree and vocational diploma becomes more blurred. Is this doing a disservice to everybody involved?

Age: The New Apartheid

Is something sinister going on in our western societies. Whiles races are integrating people seem to have become segregated by age. In an era that sees people living and staying active longer than any previous generation it is bizarre that we throw older generations on the scrapheap earlier than ever before. Are the young really turning away from parents and grandparents in an evolutionary quirk or is there something more sinister behind the trends. We don't have to dig very deep to see that the culprits are those intellectual fascists who spend their lives in Universities dearming up insane theories about how societies should manage themselves but seldom come into contact with reality.

The New Olympians

: A fiction in four parts on ethics and morality versus materialism. [ Part 1 ] ... [ Part 2 ] ... [ Part 3 ] ... [ Part 4 ]


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Comments on algorithms will rule:

Avatar Ruli Manurung • an hour ago
This is entirely the sort of article I would expect to be written by a "Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media", and one who specialises in "online culture and the dark net". I appreciate the main thrust of the article in underlining the importance of algorithms, but he talks about them in a reverential tone as if it is some dark arcane incantation that only wizards can master. Rubbish.

Ed Butt Ruli Manurung • a minute ago

Is the author, I wonder, the evil twin of Tom Chivers who a few days ago was trying to sell us the idea that an algorithm would do a better at picking our "significant others" for us than we can ourselves. Tom's premise was based on a sales pitch for an online dating service rather than balanced and critical analysis of long lasting, successful relationships.

All I can say is the Amazon algorithm has never yet recommended anything that I would want to buy. I buy a water jet flosser so naturally the thing I want most is another water jet flosser, yeah right!. And where's the logic for example in suggesting that I want to read Ken Follet's Pillars Of The Earth next on the basis that I bought Winter Of The World a few months ago? I read Pillars Of The Earth long before Amazon existed.

To a lot of people, the author of this article among them, "science" has become a religion.

charlescawley • 20 hours ago

I think you are wrong. Algorithms will not become the be all and end all. These remarks can apply to other than Google but the weakness is illuminating.

At the heart of Google's search system is a fatal flaw. It does not really understand quality and the original ideal of using links as a guide is collapsing due to a vicious circle created by either an inability or lack of will to innovate. Google assesses quality in several mechanical ways but using links is the most significant. The old way was to mark up web sites the more they were linked to by others in proportion to the assessed quality of the other sites. You may spot circularity already.

However, spammers soon caught on to this and they tried to place incoming links all over the web to fool Google. Google responded by saying links to "unknown" organisations or individuals were suspect and any website apparently benefiting would suffer sanctions and see the reverse effect. Its ranking on results would decreased for the offence of low grade incoming links because, spot the circularity, they were going to an unknown web site.

Thus, big "known" businesses or "known" individuals continue to benefit from incoming links whilst, regardless of actual quality, "unknown" ones are held suspect and penalised for the offence of incoming links based on the fact that they are "unknown". Spot the circularity.

This creates a vicious circle: Google penalises 'unknown' websites for incoming links; SEO people find ways around 'the problem'; spammers (often SEO people) use these new ways; Google responds by further penalisation of 'unknown' websites.

Big business is pleased. Known individuals are delighted. Meanwhile, the quality of organic search results deteriorates as the cure kills the patient. Algorithms are no long term answer to the assessment of quality. Another more sophisticated method is desperately needed.

The anti-spam supremo at Google, Matthew Cutts, although highly competent is no Alan Turing. The absurdity of a librarian ordering authors how and what to write (including who they can help by linking to) points to the fatal flaw in Google's present algorithms. Google is in a gigantic information war and it is not winning. It needs to abandon its attempts to control what is written and how it is written on web sites and sort out its indexing system.

It appears unwilling to go back to innovation and creativity and continues with its Penguins, Hummingbirds and other touchie, feelie, dressed up as unthreatening tweaks. Without courage, it will suffer exactly the same fate that it dished out to Yahoo. The corporation is far weaker and vulnerable than its healthy profits indicate.

It is now middle aged with middle aged managers who often put family first. Nothing wrong with that, but management must change to ensure such natural shifts in priorities do not fuel the internal politics that have destroyed so many other companies. Meanwhile, investors now want returns and Politics (with a capital P) are everywhere.

Google is in a very difficult position; it seems to be putting its faith in the Matthew Cutts method of trying to order the information to suit its increasingly vulnerable indexing system. It still has time to recover that innovative spirit but not that much time. Algorithms may have had their day; something else is needed either to rescue or to replace them.

The way it is going now, the future is most definitely not Google.

Albion • 20 hours ago
I think that anything we can do to mess with the minds of the mind-messers strikes a blow for humanity.

chaswarnertoo Albion • 20 hours ago
I am astounded by their occasional accuracy and gratified when they cock up. More disinformation needed, obviously.

Albion chaswarnertoo • 19 hours ago
For me, it is our civic responsibility to lie to any pollster, census taker, focus group ... I'd also really love to see a facility by which people could all randomly exchange their loyalty cards -- particularly to the global businesses -- so that the data harvested would be completely wrong. Many people, such as myself, who don't bother with these things would happily sign up for them just to exchange them, If I ever did sign up for one, I would definitely sign up under a false name, wrong address and fictitious telephone number.

Derek • 2 hours ago
The big secret about algorithms is how basic and dumb they are. Even the best predictive "big data" algorithms are not as useful as people might think.

It turns out that predicting human behaviour, even guessing at past history is very very difficult. Even if that were not the case it is still not clear what can be done with the information. In many cases the value is incidental, for example if Sainsbury's can predict when you will want to buy a certain product, what do they do? It's unlikely to be in their interest to promote a specific product too much. That's for the product manufacturer to do.

The most powerful and influential algorithms are those that *control* processes. Like the ones that are load balancing all the server I am using to send this to the DT or the stock trading algorithms that decide who wins or loses a bid.

keith woolcock • 4 hours ago
I don't think it is accurate to say that Google's dominance is based upon algos. Over the next two years Google is expected to spend close to $4bn on capex - so the question of physical scale and the ability to spend on what is already a colossal piece of IT infrastructure becomes the main barrier for competitors. I think any really talented algo writer could copy and improve upon Google's search algo. If it were just down to the brilliance of the algos Google would be a riskier business that it is.

erikbloodaxe • 4 hours ago
Some commentators believe that algorithm-led data analysis of NHS records could result in huge improvements in treatment outcomes, as we’d get a much better understanding of works and what doesn’t. Hmm. My credit card provider's authorisation algorithm can't seem to work out that I take my card to the same French ski resort in the same week every year.

Tensor • 5 hours ago
Given the fact that one of Alan Turing's greatest achievements was the Entscheidungsproblem discovery that certain problems cannot be solved by a computer (in the sense of representing a universal Turing machine running algorithms), there is an irony that an institute is to be opened in his name which seeks to discover or exploit algorithmic forecasting.

That said, this is possibly the best thing announced in a budget ever. Perhaps we could divert a large amount of the money now wasted on welfare, the NHS and the EU into this institute and attract the best in the world to work at it.

SteveInVienna • 5 hours ago

"But most of us have no idea what they [algorithms] are."

Goodness me. I've just turned 60 and have known what an algorithm was since I was 12 years old. How can it be that the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos has only just found out? Judging by his photograph, he is a lot older than 12.

simon_coulter • 5 hours ago
Surely algorithms are just a sibling of statistics - long analysed to predict trends and pre-empt situations?

The key to some of the successful algorithms being discussed here is the completeness and immediacy of the data hoovered up by systems you have been invited to use but where the designers call all the shots. You are volunteering the data set and they are parsing it - usually to their eventual fiscal benefit.

If we had joined-up government - even just a joined-up NHS - then the data set becomes more complete, the algorithm one which works at all locations - whereas what we term a monolith like the NHS is actually highly fragmented and layered and the data not of consistent, even and complete quality at all sites. This acts against efficiency on so many levels - including the building of algorithms which will determine the best treatments and outcomes earlier - saving considerable cost.

max_principal • 7 hours ago
The Google algorithm works on a very simple principle - links likely to be financially beneficial to Google go to the top, all others go to the bottom. The result is that for anything other than very obvious searches you never find what you want.

Still worse though is their attitude towards your privacy - they don't think that you should have any, or even that you deserve to have any.

This company is pure evil, and best avoided altogether.

6 one way half a dozen another • 7 hours ago
I find that most of the algorithms that run these systems frequently make the wrong choices. I keep my Facebook people/pages to a very small amount to prevent posts from being left out of my feed; I make as specific as possible Google search submissions, only reducing the terms if no appropriate results show; and Amazon only shows results based strictly on sales, not content or reviews (I sold books for two decades and their suggestions are frequently awful). I don't trust them for most things that are important, just the unimportant.

StrayCatamite • 8 hours ago
As long as the electricity doesn't run out.

zorbatheturk • 11 hours ago
Great algorithms, Google. First result on most searches brings up a Ukrainian porn site. Next will be a Russian mafia copycat site that downloads fake antivirus scareware onto your PC to steal your credit card data. I once searched for Japanese penpals to be confronted with a naked Eastern European blonde offering hot sex. Since I was seated in a conspicuous position in a public library at the time bare boobs filling the screen was not what I was after. One more thing. Can't high flying directors of impressive sounding think tanks afford a packet of disposable razor blades?

jnffarrell1 • 12 hours ago
Optimizing large systems leads to big mathematical problems. Gabriel Kron's tearing and other techniques can lead to billionfold speedups in finding solutions. It is just math so holding the trade secrets of which tools are used and in what order is the only way to hold a two or three year edge on competitors.

Ulysses Noman • 13 hours ago
not a damned word in there on how such algorithms will be used/abused by the police state to further constrain our lives.

John Summers • 14 hours ago
only while we have the internet, soon people will give it up, freedom is becoming a thing of the past and adds are infecting our machines so much that 90% of the web sites I looked at once I can no longer as they put adware on my machine, soon it will be worth while switching the PC off and finding another pastime.

zombietimeshare • 14 hours ago
This article could have been written by an automated robot reporter—and one day will.


Sprig of Acacia • 18 hours ago
I am growing increasingly concerend about using the internet. I have long since abandoned facebook and never use my real information for log into any site. Can government agencies establish your real identity and location when making google searches and is using a VPN sufficient to disguise these?

mr_nicely Sprig of Acacia • 17 hours ago
If the VPN logs your traffic it is pretty pointless. However some create no traffic log files and are under no legal obligation to in the country the server physically exists within. However this is becoming hard to police because of virtualisation in the cloud - for example amazon cloud services. A VPN Service provider at most will register logon times and the username that logged in for some short period. Because user names and payment methods are linked you coulbe traced with a bit of effort. A bitcoin paid for no logging service is probably the way to go.

David237856 • 19 hours ago
Maybe the algorithms will get better, but at the moment they are a bit rubbish. I often have one or two items 'saved' in my Amazon basket, which means I might buy them but haven't decided. It is therefore both unnecessary and counterproductive for Amazon and/or Google (we don't know exactly their relationship) to send adverts for those products to pursue and pester me all over the bloody internet. I usually delete the items from my basket in the faint hope that they will get the message.