Kevin Slavin: How Algorithms Shape Our World

Algorithms are shaping our world. That’s the premise of algoworld navigator and data science expert Kevin Slavin in this TED Talk: How Algorithms Shape Our World, in which he discusses how the world we’re now living in is designed for algorithms that are increasingly controlling our lives.

From the work of the over 20,000 physicists on Wall Street who create algo trading, to the mathematicians at Netflix, Google, and who use algorithms to analyze and predict behavior, our world is being impacted by math that has undergone a transformation from being something that is extracted and derived from the world to something that is actually shaping it. Even architecture is subject to algorithm optimization, and those little cleaning robots are a perfect example. Varying models have different ideas about what cleaning means, as they scoot around dirty floors according to the architectural algorithms that drive their computer codes.

Slavin says that we’re creating systems through coding that may impact us in ways that we didn’t anticipate, and can’t control — as in the Wall Street “Flash Crash of 2:45”, when 9 percent of the entire U.S. stock market disappeared in five minutes. Nobody ordered it, nobody asked for it, and nobody could control it. The algorithms took over, and humanity was locked out.

He uses this example to illustrate the fact that code is being written that is no longer legible, which means we don’t know everything that’s actually happening. In fact, there are companies now, such as Nanex in Boston, whose purpose is to rediscover the algorithms that have been created and attempt to understand them — an exercise in retrospection that is evidence of the fact that algorithms may be in, as well as out of, control.

A developer and co-founder of a game development company, Kevin Slavin lives in the Algoworld, the ever-expanding environments in our lives that are determined and run by algorithms.