Review: Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As we inevitably accelerate towards the technological Singularity (thank you, Vernor Vinge!), I see algorithms popping up more frequently not only in my work-life, but also in daily life. Or maybe I just think of daily life more in terms of explicit algorithms. Perhaps like George Costanza “My worlds are colliding!

We read this book for our Clinical Decision Support book club at work. Wow, you say, how Geek can you be? Yes, guilty as charged. However, I find that every chance I have to participate and prompt others to read outside of their usual sphere or their narrow focus at work, the more creative and thoughtful my colleagues are, and so am I (bonus!).

“Algorithms to Live By” is a collection of narratives about how these logical structures invade our daily lives. The some chapter titles are illuminating:

1. Optimal Stopping (when to stop looking), otherwise known as the “secretary problem”, or when to stop interviewing candidates because the likelihood of finding someone better is too low.

2. Scheduling (deciding what to work on). This was a helpful discussion about multi-tasking and the cognitive overhead of constantly having to re-orient yourself around a new problem to solve (that is, DON’T MULTI-TASK, it’s a MYTH). Also, how to decide which items to work on first (first in, first out? Shortest completion time? Longest completion time?

3. Caching (forget about it). How to decide what to forget, or evict or throw out, given space limitations? How to arrange your work, your files (your home?) so that frequently used items are easily found? I used this to explain why I leave my clothes laying around instead of hanging them up neatly. “I’m just caching for efficiency, honey. I’m going to need that again pretty soon!” See? Book club can be useful.

Lots of other fun topics in here. Lots of ways to take what is essentially a way of designing computer programs, and applying it explicitly to our own lives.

My family constantly makes fun of me for trying to optimize their lives (because, of course, MINE is already optimized). My daughter’s neologism on this is “Dad is always trying to optimize Humans. He is always trying to Hume-Optimize.” This has gradually devolved into shorthand: anytime I make a suggestion to improve the lives of my loved ones, the simple retort is “Don’t Hume-optimize me.”

CMIO’s take? As long as you recognize that “Hume-optimization” is a double-edged sword, you will be okay. Sometimes thinking about algorithms at work, or in cases where a friend or colleague is ACTUALLY asking for advice (listen carefully, if indeed this is the case), then, yes, go right ahead and make suggestions. On the other hand, in those FRAUGHT situations when the venting of a friend or colleague or family member is purely about venting, and not at all about problem-solving (be it oh-so-tempting), then beware: Hume-optimization is NOT WELCOME HERE. Voice of experience.

View all my reviews

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, University of Colorado Health; Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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