Hannah Fry: The Role of Algorithms [The Knowledge Project Ep. #87]

Mathematician and author of Hello World and The Mathematics of Love, Hannah Fry discusses the role of maths in society, the dating world and we explore what it means to be human in the age of algorithms.

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Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

With algorithms dominating more and more of the way that we’re communicating with each other, how we’re accessing information, what we’re watching, who we’re dating, everything, I think the maths is so behind the scenes that I don’t think it’s necessarily clear that it’s driving so much of a change.

I think that you need to humanize maths to make people want to find out more about it, but I also think that the maths itself needs to be humanized if it’s to properly fit in with our society.

You can’t just build an algorithm, put it on a shelf and decide whether you think it’s good or bad completely in isolation. You have to think about how that algorithm actually integrates with the world that you’re embedding in.

I think that everybody sort of agrees that transparency is really important here. I think particularly when it comes to the more scientific end of algorithms. To be totally blunt, I think that unless you’re doing science openly, you’re not doing science.

These machines, especially the ones that are getting much more involved in more social decisions, they really are capable of making quite catastrophic mistakes. I think that if you take the human out of the decision, even if, on average, you might have a slightly better, more consistent framework. If you take the human out of that decision process altogether, then I think that you risk real disasters.

I think the example of what’s going on right now with the pandemic is a really tragic and chilling example of how important maths can be when it comes to making clear decisions, because I think that this is just one situation where, in many ways, maths is really the biggest weapon that we have on our side.

There’s still loads of maths in lots of aspects of your love life, right? So there’s maths in how many people you date before you decide to settle down. There’s maths in the data of what photographs work well on online dating apps or websites. There’s loads of maths in designing your table plan for your wedding to make sure that people that don’t like each other don’t have to sit together, incidentally.

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