What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing

The founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU presents his latest book, explaining the ties that connect algorithms and computing to human culture–past and present.

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Algorithms tell us what to read, where to go, and who to date…but do we really understand them? It’s easy to think of algorithms as magical beings, delivering purely objective, admirably efficient, and sometimes startlingly insightful solutions to our everyday problems, from which show to watch next on Netflix to the fastest route home from work. In his new book What Algorithms Want, Ed Finn reveals the algorithm as the pack-mule of our digital world, a beast of burden working between our idealized notions of mathematical elegance and the messy realities of people and organizations in the real world. The algorithm shares roots with Alan Turing and ancient Babylonian mathematicians, but also the boundaries of language, cognition and magical thinking. Find out why algorithms are more like Captain Kirk than they are like Spock in an entertaining character sketch of an idea that ranges from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to Diderot’s Encyclopédie, from Adam Smith to FarmVille and the Star Trek computer.

How are algorithms changing our lives, from the aesthetics of television shows to the structure of the economy? What, after all, do algorithms really want? Do they have an imagination of their own? Join us to find out why we need to understand algorithms and how we can find new ways to work with computational intelligence for a better (human) future. We’ll serve free hors d’oeuvres and non-alcoholic beverages. Alcoholic beverages will be available for purchase at the First Draft Book Bar onsite.

ED FINN is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University where he is an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English. He also serves as the academic director of Future Tense, a partnership between ASU, New America and Slate Magazine, and a co-director of Emerge, an annual festival of art, ideas and the future. Ed’s research and teaching explore digital narratives, creative collaboration, and the intersection of the humanities, arts and sciences. He is the author of What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing (MIT Press, spring 2017) and co-editor of Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers and Creators of All Kinds (MIT Press, spring 2017) and Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (William Morrow, 2014). He completed his PhD in English and American Literature at Stanford University in 2011 and his bachelor’s degree at Princeton University in 2002. Before graduate school, Ed worked as a journalist at TimeSlate, and Popular Science.