In his Ted talk How algorithms shape our world, Kevin Slavin describes algorithms as insect or bird like creatures that act as autonomous agents. Agents that once released into a data universe will not be as frequently observed by humans as you might have imagined they should.
Talking about the stock market, he tells us that over 70% of trading is now is not directed by people but by algorithms. He explains that sometimes unusual things happen inside the datasphere due to the dutiful but virus-like behaviour of simple or complex algorithms interacting with each other with no human intervention. Sometimes they vanish – and no-one knows where they went but the world feels as the digital void sucks in everything around; pension schemes, mortgages and other financial data. Kevin talks of the internet as a very real thing. As in – the internet is in building X, because this is where the cables come up into the city. The closer your trading post is to building X, the faster your algorithms can magically do their bidding, the better your chances of winning the deal.
Companies are terraforming the planet to provide a channel for algorithms so that they can have a competitive edge. Gouging their ways through mountain ranges, forests, towns and fields, it’s not clear to anyone watching what benefit the changing landscape brings. Mineral extraction is replaced by data mining but it comes with its share of geological implications.
Kevin predicts that bubbles of human/machine/code infrastructure will emerge in the ocean directly above where the internet cables cross the planet – to have the competitive advantage in a war of digital wealth. This is in stark contrast with the African overground cables that due to the major problem of cable theft, leave internet services vulnerable, slow and causing major disruption to services, financial and other.
So as humans we are creating these new types of entities, have been making them for a while now, and it seems that they resemble bacteria or viruses more than they do robots or machines the ones we might have been frightened would take over the planet. The disembodied digital bacteria of the new info age could be as much of a threat to the planet as hardware bound robots or drones. Wall street is employing a high number of physicists in addition to financial analysts. The recent financial crisis is not often talked about as an invasion of the rogue algobots but it’s a powerful idea.
I’m curious to know how this will impact on our future, on our children’s futures and on the future of the planet. Can we put as much effort into creating generative algorithms that carry out useful rogue activity? are hackers releasing posibots out there to do some good work? I’m pretty sure they are but would like to find out more. For sure any act of creation carries with it an ethical dimension that should be considered.
photo by jm_escalante