Our six shortlisted books exemplify contemporary science writing at its best: all are grounded in rigorous research, hugely accessible and framed around a compelling narrative.
Society has slowly handed over significant control to computers but how much should we rely on them over our own instincts? Mathematician Hannah Fry uncovers the hidden algorithms which can be found behind almost every aspect of our modern lives. She lifts the lid on their inner workings, demonstrating their power and exposing their limitations.
With refreshing simplicity, Fry explains what AI, machine learning and complicated algorithms really mean, providing some succinct explanations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, driverless cars and many other unnerving modern phenomena. She asks the reader to consider some difficult questions: would you hand over your medical records to a faceless company if doing so might improve treatment for everyone?
She is brilliantly clear on how algorithms work. In essence, they are step-by-step instructions given to a computer when you also feed it data. The most ambitious types are described as “machine-learning”. Fry compares these to training a dog....The analogy is clever because it is machine-learning that is generally referred to as “artificial intelligence” and Fry exposes what that really amounts to. (In a joyous footnote, she points out that scientists are still trying, and failing, to simulate the brain of a worm. Worm brains have 302 neurons; human ones have some 100bn.)
Still, Hello World ranks alongside Timandra Harkness’s Big Data and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction as one of the best books yet written on data and algorithms. Fry insists that she is not a natural author. Good. As Thomas Mann said, a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. All that hard labour behind the scenes has resulted in a beautifully accessible guide to the fabric of modern life that leaps lightly from one story to the next without sparing the reader some hard questions.
"You are accused of a crime. Who would you rather determined your fate-a human, or an algorithm? An algorithm is more consistent and less prone to error of judgement. Yet a human can look you in the eye before passing sentence." Just one of the surprising conundrums to emerge from this consistently illuminating survey of the algorithms that now dictate our everyday lives, by the mathematics professor, and gifted communicator. Fry demonstrates their power, exposes their limitations and-as above-scrutinises whether they really constitute an improvement on the humans they are coded to replace....