Book Review: ‘Outnumbered’, an exploration of mathematics' dark side

News Desk

The Jakarta Post


Jakarta   /  Mon, July 30, 2018  /  01:30 pm

In 'Outnumbered', author David Sumpter argues that artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are more than what meets the eye.(JP/Wienda Parwitsari)

At a time when society is becoming more and more reliant on technology and the internet, there is widespread concern they are exerting too much influence over our lives. 

Behind it all are algorithms that have the capability to predict our everyday lives, and to be frank, we’re not entirely sure what they are up to.

In Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to fake news and filter-bubbles - the algorithms that control our lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica), author David Sumpter writes about society’s ever growing concerns about technology, as well as how algorithms work and their capability to run our lives. It is a fascinating read, drawing on real life phenomenon and stories, such as the likes of Cambridge Analytica.

Simply put, Sumpter tells readers that artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are more than what meets the eye.

When it comes to technology and the internet, many see it as an open field, accessible to many and a place where we can freely move around. We easily surf the web, clicking on websites, constantly using search engines to keep up with our daily lives. We don’t really put much thought into what happens after we make a single click, but we are now more aware and sensitive of what happens to our data.

That being said, the internet holds a massive digital archive of our opinions, gathered from the algorithms that lie beneath it. These opinions are then analyzed to become a mold of our preference and interests and manipulated to influence us. So we ask each other why. Why are these data researchers and tech giants collecting our data? And how are they using it? What is it about our data that interests them so much?

In this book, Sumpter investigates and explains it all. A professor of applied mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Sumpter pitches to his readers a model that illustrates how these algorithms work, from how they analyze us, influence us and become us, and what we should and should not worry about.

Read also: Book Review: 'Social Creature', a deathly tale in the Instagram age

Sumpter explains all his findings through fascinating examples and case studies, such as how mathematicians applied mathematics in an effort to locate Banksy, an anonymous street artist, or how Google’s neural network had the capability to play Space Invaders against a human being, as well as how companies secretly used our data for political use and that one algorithm that analyzes how the number of “likes” and “dislikes” on platforms such as YouTube correlate with popularity. The list goes on and it is mind blowing.

Unfortunately, the book can get too technical and academic at times, which makes it hard to wrap your mind around. But Sumpter, knowing his readers are not data experts, makes the effort to convey his findings in conversational and slightly witty language.

Though many still deem it a hard read, once you’re blown away by one of Sumpter’s findings, you’ll have a craving to find out more. There’s just something interesting about knowing how algorithms really work and impact our lives. And once you learn, you’ll be able to tread more carefully in the digital world.

A recurring theme of the book is how Sumpter explains each finding in detail and demonstrates how it relates to our lives, showing readers both the positive and negative impacts. It indeed strengthens Sumpter’s explanations but it feels like he is making it too lengthy for readers who are not familiar with the issue.

Regardless, Outnumberedis a thought-provoking book and gives readers a chance to think about the significant role the internet plays in our lives. It may also make readers wiser surfers of the web. (anm/kes)