:ALGORITHM

08.11.11

Kevin Slavin’s TED Talk on How algorithms shape our world inspired this post. Algorithms are essentially a set of rules defined for solving a particular problem. He explains how algorithms are not only playing an increasingly more influential role in everything around us, but also how those rules have become so complex that humans are no long capable of reading them.

One example he gives of this (and pertinent to the S&P downgrade of the US’s credit rating this week) is the flash crash of 2010. Two competing sets of algorithms used to buy and sell stocks or Algo Trading were in violent conflict. With no human supervision, those algorithm’s caused the market to lose 9% in an instant only to recover moments later. What’s surprising is that no one really has any idea why it happened.

He also gives examples of algorithms at work in our homes. Netflix uses an algorithm to decide what movies to recommend. The Roomba (seriously, if you haven’t seen the light pictures, click that link) uses an algorithm to decide what clean is.  There are all kinds of algorithms being used to make all sorts of decisions for us, to understand us and direct us.  Most interestingly to me was his insight that ‘architecture itself is somehow subject to algorithmic optimization’.

There are architects who have already embraced an algorithmic approach in the design process. Architecture and Graphic design is, after all, really just defining a set of rules for solving a particular problem. However technology has given architects the tools to use math beyond simple properties of mathematical proportion. An algorithmic approach offers the ability to consider a limitless number of influences to arrive at a solution.

Okay, so I have just bored you with my 5th grade level of understanding algorithms. Time to have some fun with them in a very visceral way. I created the images above with an app for the iphone called P5P. It uses a series of algorithms to generate images from the touch or movement of the phone. You can manipulate a number of variables (rules) that will respond differently to the same action.

Living in a profession that continually seeks to refine the expression of the built human environment, I can imagine a future where structures and graphics react to rather than just contain their occupants. And as Kevin Slavin explains, the complexity of those reactions will demand that we both protect ourselves and appreciate them as if they were nature.

How do you feel about computers deciding what you like?

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One Response to “:ALGORITHM”

  1. mbevivino Says:

    If anyone is interested in what this might look like check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTVv8Vv9yx0&feature=player_embedded


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