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The Age of Algorithms

Serge Abiteboul and Gilles Dowek
Cambridge University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Joel Haack
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The Age of Algorithms is a pleasant and thought-provoking survey of algorithms and the issues they have raised in society. As the authors write in the short Chapter 1, “We invite the reader on a journey through the world of algorithms during the course of which we will encounter some of the challenges facing us in the age of algorithms: the transformation of work, the disappearance of property, and the protection of privacy, to name a few.” 
Chapters 2 through 6 introduce algorithms, algorithmic thinking, and ways to describe information. Chapter 2 provides examples of algorithms, identifies common parts of algorithms—assignment, sequencing, loop, and test—and points out that many algorithms make use of previously developed algorithms. In Chapter 3, the authors connect algorithms to computers, while Chapter 4 discusses what algorithms do: computation, information management, communication, exploration, data analysis, signal processing, object control manufacturing, and modeling/simulation. In the discussion of communication (which includes cell phones), I was particularly struck by the comment, “This convergence of computer science and telecommunications is perhaps the phenomenon that we least expected. In certain science-fiction novels of the 1960s, the inhabitants of Earth in the year 2000 travel in flying cars, but they stop at phone booths to make their calls.”  In Chapter 5, there are brief descriptions of such concepts as incomputable and undecidable problems, computation time, resource limitations, reliability, security, and interaction with humans. Chapter 6 discusses the new ways of thinking created by the rise of algorithms and concludes with a few remarks on women in computer science, encouraging the profession to do more to be welcoming to everyone.
Chapters 7 through 9 introduce the questions of the impact of computers and algorithms on the issues of employment and property. The authors conclude Chapter 7, “An important aspect of policy development in the twenty-first century will no doubt be the invention of new forms of social organizations that offer alternatives to both wage-based employment and precariousness, since the model of salaried, and even hourly, employees is on its way out.”  The changes to employment and work discussed in Chapters 7 and 8 lead to questions about the notion of property, and to a discussion of non-rival goods and the contrast between free goods and a “winner takes all” model of immense profits in Chapter 9.  
Chapter 10 points out that, before the rise of communication technologies, it was reasonable to face binary choices in an election—one would choose one candidate rather than another if they agreed with you on issues important to you, even though you might disagree on many others. In the past, the time lag in communication would make it difficult to do better than select that one candidate. But with instant communication, you would instead wish to have your views in matters on which you disagreed with the candidate reflected in government decisions. Why not incorporate that (somehow) into the governing scheme?
Chapters 11-14 focus on making decisions in society by algorithms instead of by humans. For example, in Chapter 11 the authors raise the question of whether judges can/should be replaced with algorithms in sentencing and sentence reduction considerations. The authors’ answer is “not yet.” The topics of Chapter 12 include liability issues of self-driving cars, digital personal assistants, the stock market, and fake news and hate speech. Chapter 13 introduces the question of data privacy in the cases of government and corporations, seeing both positives and negatives of access to personal data. There is a brief paragraph on the 2016 General Data Protection Regulation in the EU. In Chapter 14, there are definitions of fairness, transparency, diversity (especially of recommendations—how will a consumer find something new if the recommendations offered by an algorithm are based on what one has liked?), and accessibility.
The topics connecting computer science and ecology in Chapter 15 include models of climate change and of complex energy systems as well as questions about the energy consumption by computers, the materials used to make them, and the issue of recycling or disposing of them.
Chapter 16 distinguishes two parts of computer science education. First, there is the general education issue of learning about algorithms and their place in the world. Second, there is the introductory course that begins to prepare students for a career in computer science, including algorithms, machine language, information, and computational thinking.  This book could be useful in each of these courses.
The content of Chapters 17-19 is clear from their titles, including discussions of creativity, emotions, and consciousness.
The one-page Chapter 20 summarizes the point of this book well in the final sentences: “Algorithms expand the range of possibility. They make us masters of our own destinies. But it is for us to choose. Avoiding the pitfalls of selfishness and fear will not be easy, but it is possible. With algorithms, Homo sapiens has finally created a tool equal to their aspirations, a tool that makes it possible to build a world that is better, freer, and fairer. The choice is ours.” 
This short book would be very useful as a supplement in general education courses in algorithmic thinking as well as in introductory computer science courses. The wide range of topics, presented clearly but briefly, would provide multiple opportunities for class discussions and individual or group research projects. There is no bibliography, but internet searches would provide plenty of follow-up material. This book is also a good read for the general reader. If you have never thought about the issues raised by the use of algorithms in our society, this would be a fine introduction. If you have, this will provide a good outline for further deliberations.


Joel Haack ( is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa.