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September 24, 2007

Are You The Algorithm? Or Is The Algorithm You? [5:54 pm]

An Oracle for Our Time, Part Man, Part Machine

It was the Internet that stripped the word of its innocence. Algorithms, as closely guarded as state secrets, buy and sell stocks and mortgage-backed securities, sometimes with a dispassionate zeal that crashes markets. Algorithms promise to find the news that fits you, and even your perfect mate. You can’t visit Amazon.com without being confronted with a list of books and other products that the Great Algoritmi recommends.

Its intuitions, of course, are just calculations — given enough time they could be carried out with stones. But when so much data is processed so rapidly, the effect is oracular and almost opaque. Even with a peek at the cybernetic trade secrets, you probably couldn’t unwind the computations. As you sit with your eHarmony spouse watching the movies Netflix prescribes, you might as well be an avatar in Second Life. You have been absorbed into the operating system.

[...] In his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Alan Turing foresaw a day when it would be hard to tell the difference between the responses of a computer and a human being. What he may not have envisioned is how thoroughly the boundary would blur.

For example, who really thinks about what’s being offered here? Have we really gotten “past privacy?” Company Will Monitor Phone Calls to Tailor Ads

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