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Books Capitalism’s golden cage locked by algorithms

ANDY HEDGECOCK recommends a book that engagingly dissects the dangers posed to democracy by unsupervised, profit-driven AI innovation

How to Stay Smart in a Smart World
by Gerd Gigerenzer
Allen Lane, £20.00     

 HUMAN judgement is under attack. Mesmerised by complex algorithms, rapid inferences and gargantuan datasets, we are abdicating decisions to AI in passenger transport, security, health, finance, and even dating.
In his latest book, Gerd Gigerenzer, a cognitive psychologist specialising in risk and decision-making, explores the allure of automated systems and our willingness to sacrifice knowledge, experience and feeling on the altar of computation.

Gigerenzer is no Luddite. He argues that we must “keep our eyes open and stay in charge” by increasing our technological literacy. The alternative is to sleepwalk into an era of digital autocracy.
He begins by deconstructing online dating algorithms to demonstrate the inability of AI to solve dynamic and fuzzily defined problems, and argues that the performance of AI in driverless vehicles is equally problematic. Our response to these technologies, he argues, is conditioned by marketing. These tools are sold on their ability to meet our needs, but their shortcomings require a change in our behaviour.      
The book’s explanations of specific algorithms, and the factors leading us to perceive them as effective and benevolent, are accessible and instructive. Unlike other books in the recent wave of work on the ethics and impact of AI it follows the money driving the technology — the business models, the hype and the process of making internet applications addictive.
Its critique of pervasive internet surveillance focuses on the historical opposition to access to websites based on monetary payment. The alternative, access in exchange for the release of data, created a new economy based on the principle of surveillance capitalism. Results include internet-based political “nudging,” smart dolls that eavesdrop on children and market specific products in their “conversations,” and the declaration by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that people can no longer expect privacy.

Disaster can be averted, says Gigerenzer, if governments develop the courage to defend democratic ideals, oppose tech companies and build an alternative internet, based on the free exchange of information.
Smart technologies have brought humanity to a dangerous corner. Gigerenzer calls for the exposure of the hidden logic of “black-box” applications employed in predictive policing, credit scoring and health screening, rails against the use of addictive reinforcement patterns in online gambling, highlights the dangerously distracting nature of our devices and identifies web-based disinformation as “a serious threat to human evolution.”
His explanations of algorithms and psychological processes are sure-footed and clear, and his use of thought experiments to highlight the misuse of statistics by the corporate champions of AI is entertaining and compelling.  
How to Stay Smart in a Smart World is essential reading for anyone exposed to technology that shapes our behaviour rather than meeting our needs. In other words, it is essential reading for all of us.
Andy Hedgecock


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