Every get the impression that people are using words, but don’t really understand what those words actually mean? I get that impression a lot. Sometimes I hear people talk about things and I catch them using a term incorrectly. Sometimes it is that the word has a more niche meaning to people with a certain education, and sometime it is just that a word has recently become a buzzword and the majority of people don’t really understand what the hell it is.
I try not to do this as much as possible. And although I sometimes fail at not putting my foot in my mouth, I have enough introspection to catch myself doing it and then set out to learn as much as I can about the buzzword, so that I can be both less publicly foolish and more well informed.
‘Algorithms’ is such a buzzword. Do you know what it means? Could you explain it to a five year old?
I probably would have told you that I did know what it was up to the point that I read Hannah Fry’s ‘Hello World’. The book aims to serve a pretty necessary function in our modern society: that is, to define and explain some of the technical jargon that is becoming more and more important in our lives, as well as explaining how these forces impact us. If you are a non-mathematician and non-computer scientist, this book may come very much in handy. I mentioned ‘algorithm’ in the above paragraph, but it also tries to explain things like what exactly people mean by ‘AI’ and ‘machine learning’. These words were all once firmly planted in the realm of science-fiction, and now they get mentioned in the news as if they were as normal as a cloud in the sky. Frankly, a lot of people are not all that ready for this.
One of the most flattering things I could say about a book is to talk about it convincing me of something. Some time ago I began to hear smarter people than myself talk about how algorithms can be racist. Certainly, such a bold claim should probably have been run through a marketing department. Taken at that face values, it is easy to see why many people became immediately skeptical, particularly if you know nothing of what an algorithm is or how it functions. You may think of it as more of an algebraic equation, and be left wondering how 3x+4y=23 could be racist. I likely ran the spectrum of these opinions, but reading ‘Hello World’ really helped me understand the statement better, and ultimately I would now say that I agree with it.
The problem I mentioned in the opening is only going to get worse. Being reasonably informed in the future will require more and more education. Books such as this, that help laypeople come to an understanding of difficult topics, will be vital.