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# Kevin Slavin: How Algorithms Shape Our World

First Posted: 11/30/11 12:53 PM ET Updated: 12/09/11 02:59 PM ET

In this special year-end collaboration, TED and The Huffington Post are excited to count down 18 great ideas of 2011, featuring the full TEDTalk with original blog posts that we think will shape 2012. Watch, engage and share these groundbreaking ideas as they are unveiled one-by-one, including never-seen-before TEDTalk premieres. Standby, the countdown is underway!
Watch game developer Kevin Slavin's TEDTalk above and then explore his thoughts in this companion essay.

Back at TEDGlobal, the most difficult aspect of preparation was the editing process, chipping away at three hours of material to cut it down into 14 live minutes.

Of all the darlings that were killed, the ones I missed most were a few minutes about genetic algorithms. Like everything I presented, it's a subject for which I have interest and passion, not training or expertise. It's going to seem very dull. But stay with me for a few of the missing minutes.

Genetic Algorithms.

To oversimplify, genetic algorithms (GAs) are a special type of algorithmic analysis. A friend explained it this way: Let's say you were running one to figure out the optimal shape for the wing of an airplane. You have some variables: size, weight, material, shape, for example, and you have criteria for their effects: fuel consumption, wind drag, speed, and so on.

You know how to find out what variables will yield what effects. But there are so many variables to consider; it's impossible to know where to start. Do you start by just improving what we know works? What if there might be some radical new way to do it better? We're using GAs to get results for questions like these.

A GA takes all the variables (size, weight, material, in the wing example) and puts in a bunch of random values, creating a set of 20 randomly determined variations: one "generation." The generation runs its simulated course, generating better or worse results, given the criteria you have in mind. Random wing #4 might perform much better than #8 -- but #19 is the clear stand-out.

If you were to brute-force the problem, you'd have to try every possible combination of every possible number for every variable. So GAs take their cue from biology, and "learn" from one generation to another. The GA for the wing will take the randomly assigned wing #19 from that first generation -- the outperformer -- and when it runs the second generation of new wings, it will give genetic weight to the comparable success from that first generation. If wing #19 was using aluminum, perhaps, there might be more offspring in the second generation of wings that use aluminum.

Essentially, we are harnessing the principles of evolution -- crossover, mutation, natural selection -- to speed up the race toward optimal outcome. But where biology takes place at a geological scale, GAs are running in computer time, microseconds and milliseconds. So a bunch of variables go in, and after a day or two, out come some optimized results.

Like everything, it's easiest to understand if you can watch it work. This slows it all down to human time, which defeats the point. But to try and visualize it, let me point you to an amazing site: the Boxcar2D "Computation Intelligence Car Evolution Using Box2D Physics." You can try it for yourself here and get deep into the process of it here.

Stories without authors.

I remember when my friend Adam first showed me the Boxcar GA. I was silent the rest of the night, watching the random assembly of weight and wheels make their way across a random landscape of hills. It was like watching Beckett, a bunch of dead weight with one tiny wheel, trying to drag itself up a hill, unaware that there's another wheel spinning freely on top of it. It's like watching a puppy in the snow -- you want to say: it's OK! Just put the other wheel on the bottom!

But this is exactly the point: you're not in any dialog with the process. Instead, you can passively watch it like I did for a few hours. You'll see that it figures out for itself: wheels go on the bottom. The wheels go on the bottom, the weight starts to streamline and shape itself into something we can recognize as streamlined, and then our little boxcar makes it all the way to wherever it was going.

What's unnerving for many -- at least for me -- is that the solution doesn't start with a hypothesis, with an idea. No hunch, no sense of the world. It doesn't know that the wheels should go on the bottom, any more than a human fetus knows that its brain should be housed in the skull. It just worked out best that way over a few trillion randomly differentiated events. That's why "artificial intelligence" is a bit strange when considered in this context. The result is the result an Intelligent entity would produce, but it's not a form of intelligence we can recognize as analogous to our own.

Post-TED, this is what I've been thinking about the most lately, thinking about it as the most important part of the story. It's the story of stories themselves. The Boxcar has no narrative except the straight motion from A to B, over simulated distance and compressed time. So a million boxcars ship every day in a million forms, some drive the market, some actually design real cars, others are just recommending your next movie on Netflix. We recognize a beginning and a conclusion. But we can no longer recognize the author.

The market used to be the result of a general sense of the world, people who could "hear the music," as one of the bankers say in Margin Call. Automobile design used to have fashion that came down from iconic designers, like when Harley Earl took the tailfin GM motif from P-38 fighter planes and began a designer's race to the streamlined future. Movies used to be something that we heard about from that critic, or that friend.

These days, the authorless stories are stories without intention, stories that could never explain how they got to where they got to. All they could do is puzzle through it by stepping backwards through time, the same way we try to piece together how we ended up with an appendix inside each one of us. In staring down a Genetic Algorithm, you are staring down the larger questions of what happens when no one is driving, no one is editing, a world without supervision. A world in which darlings die because they fail a fitness test. Not because anyone killed them.

The physics of culture.

Stories are how we understand the world. But here we are, and more and more of what we experience as story is no longer subject to a storyteller's criteria. News is aggregated, information is optimized, these systems become the physics of culture. We are displaced in a world in which choice, delivery, and editing can no longer be assumed to have intention inside them. That's what I wanted to tell in Edinburgh, but didn't have the time. That was the choice I made.

But it's also the meaning of what I write here: I arrived here, this is how I got here, it wasn't perfect then and it's not perfect now. But if it feels like something was transmitted that's difficult to quantify -- something besides and beyond information -- then maybe this other thing is the reason we care about it to begin with.

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12:26 AM on 04/05/2012
very interesting. next wave to knock out more jobs and cause panic. can we leave the decision making in the hands of algos? tough luck.
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StupidityIsGrace
nickdolansjournal.posterous.com
06:01 PM on 02/29/2012
That was beautiful.
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shaitan
12:48 AM on 12/18/2011
I worry about the Flash Crashes that occur without warning and may finally bring the entire enterprise crashing down one of these days. I got stung in my accounts by two of those and was never made whole by the anyone--they conveniently ignored most of the loss and just covered a small bit of it. So algorithmic trading may be great for the investment houses but for individual investors a transaction tax sufficient to dissuade excessive algorithmic trading would be very welcome. It would also help the nation's fianances.
10:33 PM on 12/16/2011
I'm sorry but I have to say this: This is saying that the universe exists so that those who are most capable of achieving greed as their god should change the world so that it most suits them.

Personally I like Christ, the Talmud and the Korans version that we are all in this together and need to treat each other as well as possible to make it as good for ourselves now and in the future while we figure out who we are and why we are here.

As to what we are and how we fit in I prefer Gia Fu Fengs translation of the Tao as the best poetical translation.
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01:49 PM on 12/20/2011
"achieving greed as their god should change the world so that it most suits them"

You mean like Alexander the Great? The Egyptians, Romans, Renaissance Europe, George W. Bush, corporations, NASA?
Are you really that surprised that the individuals you mention are mostly relegated to the library shelves? This planet is where the greedy are sent to perform their mischief.
10:03 PM on 12/16/2011
Algorithims are mearly a mathematicians way of trying to interpret the universe into something they can understand.
12:36 PM on 12/13/2011
This is by far the most interesting talk on Ted that I've ever heard or read about.
oneeasyrider
E=mc2: From light you exist
08:57 AM on 12/05/2011
Thinking about evolutionary potential GA's present, by accelerating the process in real time as apposed to countless generations, has lead me to think about our consistently failed political economic process.

Seems politicians are incapable of sound economic policies and we keep repeating failed polices with no reference to history. So, I started thinking about what role economic algorithms could play in a future attempt to stabilize our national and the world economy.

While economics is hard, seemingly counter-intuitive to many, it does seem logical there is potential to program stable economic guidelines; especially considering evolutionary algorithms are more complicated than economics.

Even though the idea runs counter to the author's premise, the thought is intriguing.
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PeterMelzer
09:43 AM on 12/04/2011
While watching the TED presentation, Gestalt Psychology came to mind. The talk could have been titled "How Humans Create Synergy".

As Max Wertheimer so aptly observed the whole may be more than the sum of the pieces. This is a natural phenomenon that any social relationship reflects. The Flash Crash suggests that for less than a blink of an eye we lost sight of how high frequency trading algorithms relate.

http://brainmindinst.blogspot.com/2008/06/professor-max-wertheimers-synergy.html
HUFFPOST SUPER USER
who are you jivin' with that cosmic debris?...
10:04 PM on 12/03/2011
Let's say you were running one to figure out the optimal shape for the wing of an airplane. You have some variables: size, weight, material, shape, for example, and you have criteria for their effects: fuel consumption, wind drag, speed, and so on.
its called computational fluid dynamics solving the Naviar-Stokes equations..its now done in virtually real time. very cool stuff..so dont get too mesmerized by one voice......listen to all...see the patterns ---figure it out for yourself....
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01:48 PM on 12/03/2011
A big financial transaction tax like many other countries have would help raise necessary revenue for america.
NormalAmericanMan
If we knew anything, we would not be here.
01:42 PM on 12/06/2011
I would suggest it is already in place.
10:38 AM on 12/02/2011
Kevin reminds me of the late Carl Sagan. Both of them has an intelligence that is almost touchable.

If we had that intelligence in our government leaders and advisors it would be a different world.
09:50 AM on 12/02/2011
It is like a breath of fresh air to listen to Kevin rather than politicians.
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manumoka
09:39 AM on 12/02/2011
totally fascinating and amazing.

i'd like to see the entire talks up on ted (or elsewhere).
09:21 AM on 12/02/2011
My comment didn't make it in last time. I wonder if your GA could possibly replicate those wonderous stretches of DNA filled with nonsense-syllables and repeated sequences that may surprisingly result in major evolutionary change? Life is not efficient.
HamletsMill
All Myth is Astronomy
03:17 PM on 12/02/2011
"Life is not efficient."

Very true. But death is.
08:28 AM on 12/02/2011
It's all in what you tell the machine to do. These algorythms are ultimately under our control because we set the conditions and outcomes.

Our economy is based on maximizing profit as the highest valued outcome. All the programs that can learn but have no goal beyond achieving the outcome are in service to the goal of financial profit.

We know how we got here. We believed the laissez-faire capitalist ideal and slowly allowed a nearly incomprehensiblly complex financial web to take it over.

Our choices are the ghost in the machine.
12:10 PM on 12/02/2011
There are no programs that are simply designed to maximize profit anymore. Financial systems have become movers of culture far beyond the market. What better way to make ones own profit than to destroy the profit of others and take a piece of the remains? The total profit of the system is never measured since it is not a goal since it cannot be owned. The individual profit is the goal and the fewer winners there are the bigger each winner can be.

Thus our system can eventually enrich the one last individual who will survive in a destroyed landscape but be ignorant of it. The unstated goal of the system will have been reached. Laissez-faire as a concept is the same as natures code of the jungle. But where the jungle moderates the effect of its viciousnes by being mortal, the algoithms of finance exist in the information domain and know no moderation. They will play out into an artificial intelligence that breathes mathematics and create an informational world on top of ours.

Information needs no human goals to act and eventually no mortal life to sustain it. In a way we have met the first glimpse of a dangerous alien invasion that has come literally from the shadows of our own incomprehensible DNA. What goal cosmological physics may be playing out in all of this is far beyond our ability to understand but we don't have to understand enemies to stop them. We only need to act.
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01:49 PM on 12/03/2011
A financial transaction tax would help..