August 24, 2016

Algorithms To Live By

If there’s one thing I learned from reading Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ Algorithms To Live By, it’s that my mind does not operate like a computer, at all.

This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. While computers are excellent at finding the best possible answers for our most complex problems, they are (at least, not yet) able to imbue those solutions with context, empathy, and an understanding of the human emotional condition.

That said, using computer science to guide decisions in our lives can be useful, and Mr. Christian and Mr. Griffiths’ book is illuminating in that respect. What Algorithms To Live By offers, more than simply advice on how to live like a computer, is a deeper understanding of computer science as a practice, and why it is so important to the way we live today.

Despite working in the digital realm, my knowledge of how computers work is limited to very basic programming skills and a superficial understanding of hardware architecture. What I didn’t realize until reading this book is that computer science isn’t simply a way to find a correct answer, but a constantly-evolving process of finding the best answers to questions that have no perfect solution. Like humans, computers must make quick decisions; unlike humans, their capacity to process incredible amounts of information to drive those decisions is formidable.

My habits of sorting and filing, of making pro-and-con lists—these are all contrary to the way computer science would suggest I live my life. I am re-evaluating these habits after reading Algorithms To Live By, but more than simply taking the advice at face value, I am constantly asking myself, now: what would an algorithm do? I may not know the answer, or even like it, but this book has at least opened my eyes to a new way of thinking, and given me a new tool in my problem-solving kit.

→ Marginalia