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A novel about the technology that controls our lives accelerates into an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border.
The year is 2072. Technology has left the keyboard and is implanted in our brains; those who don't have the implants are “wild,” meaning natural thinkers. Baker has created a believable, not-too-distant world with the same issues we face but on a grander scale: People spend too much time in virtual reality; there's a proliferation of porn sites and a computing-power arms race. But here, it's all done seamlessly through “the boost” in people's heads; keyboards and screens are antiques. The ghost in the machine is surveillance—surprise! A scheduled software update will enable American workers to be as efficient as their Chinese counterparts; Ralf Alvare is tipped off about a gateway that will allow Varagon Inc. to snoop, collecting personal data from anyone’s head, for marketing and advertising purposes. He is caught trying to close the software gate, his implant is removed—rather, ripped from his head—and he's soon on the run to El Paso. He's now “wild,” which isn't a comfortable state of mind for this digital genius. Baker’s characters are memorable and wickedly fun. Ralf’s companion, Ellen, has been genetically enhanced as an Artremis—a stunningly beautiful, Amazon-like ball of fire. Don Paquito is an unassuming hero who prints the last remaining newspaper, the only outlet for uncensored truth. As Ralf and his brother Simon shimmy through a tunnel from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, they enter a world where the boost is safe from surveillance and the largest population of “wild” people in the world lives in the past. From here, they make their stand against “the virtual as real.”
Baker has written a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.
|"Baker has put together an intriguing cast in which the secondary characters are almost more exciting than the leads..."
Computing has moved into our brains in the near future, and when the United States loses the chip wars, the country turns to chips from China to remain technologically competitive. Ralf is in charge of the rollout of the nationwide chips upgrade, called "boosts," but he discovers that someone has deliberately left a security gate open that will allow surveillance of every aspect of people's lives. When his boost is ripped from his brain, Ralf ends up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the only communities for those living "wild" without a chip. He needs to find a way to get a new boost and prevent the chip upgrade before the government finds him and stops him for good. VERDICT Baker has put together an intriguing cast in which the secondary characters are almost more exciting than the leads, including an egomaniacal Paraguayan drug lord-turned-newspaper mogul, a beautiful but ditzy Mata Hari, and the conflicted government hit man sent after Ralf who instead spends his time enjoying Juarez. After writing several nonfiction books about technology (The Numerati; Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest To Know Everything), this is Baker's first novel.
|- Library Journal, April 26, 2014
"Highly recommended to sf and techno-thriller fans."
In the not-too-distant future, just before a major update to the network of computer chips, known colloquially as "boosts," implanted in the brains of most of the world's population, Ralf, a low-level government employee who also happens to be a bit of a techno-whiz, learns that the Chinese company behind the chips has incorporated into the update a rather frightening security breach, which will allow the Chinese to monitor each and every boost-outfitted person. Before he can blow the whistle, Ralf's boost is forcibly removed, leaving him unconnected from the network and on the run, hiding out in a community of similarly unconnected people (they're called "wild"), hoping his brother, a fella with a seriously mysterious lifestyle, can help him survive. This is an exciting story, even if it's built on a familiar platform. There are plenty of other sf novels involving similar types of implants, but Baker loads this one with enough fresh material that it doesn't seem like a been-there, done-that affair. Highly recommended to sf and techno-thriller fans. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.
|- David Pitt, April 24, 2014
If two incidents constitute a trend—as they surely do, according to the careless metrics of desperate journalists such as myself—then science fiction is in for a spate of books in which the common furniture of the genre gets a fresh, down-to-the-roots reconceptualizing. What exactly do I mean by this?
Consider William Forstchen’s recent Pillar to the Sky, in which he takes the common, decades-old trope of the space elevator—presented nowadays in most books that have cause to employ it as an offhand bit of assumed technology used mostly to further a plot—and foregrounds it, examining the initial creation of such a device in fresh, complex detail. This recontextualizing or rethinking or inversion of background/foreground is something that I think is a very useful tool, in limited doses. I’m not sure we need to reinvent the wheel for every item in the SF toolbox. But with a few select ones where the hard edges have been smoothed down to a featureless nub, the technique proves stimulating.
Such a literary tactic often appears appealing when new developments in the real world mandate a rethink. In the case of the space elevator, new progress in materials science has made the prospect seem more do-able. And fresh economic and environmental worries also serve to propel Forstchen’s narrative.
In the case of Stephen Baker’s debut novel, The Boost, whose focal trope is that of brain implants, the impetus for tackling this bit of standard cyberpunk gear—again, used nowadays mostly as off-the-shelf background hardware—is not, I believe, technical progress, but social and cultural events. The science of inserting computers into the human brain has not really advanced much in the past three decades since such implants were a common feature of Gibsonian SF. No recent headline has really demanded we prep ourselves for some imminent deployment of such devices.
But what has happened since the cyberpunk days is the advent of mobile computing, in the form of smart phones and tablets and similar gadgets. In effect, these exterior devices mimic or mirror or foreshadow actual brain implants. And what the usage of such devices has shown us is troubling. The ways they have changed face-to-face communicating, mating rituals, recreational pursuits and a dozen other aspects of social and civic behavior is sometimes encouraging, but more often, to my mind, highly disturbing. There are now confirmed instances of cell phone addiction, and individual usage rates of 150 app interactions daily. Think about it: that’s multiple screen swipes roughly every ten minutes of one’s entire waking interval, day after day after day.
Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.
The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”
But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.
Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.
But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.
Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.
But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”
Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.
Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”
And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.
One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.
"This is a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and SF. "
An update to the boost, a revolutionary human-computer interface, threatens to open Americans’ brains like a Facebook account left unattended in Baker’s chillingly possible debut, a futuristic thriller with a few flaws. Baker weaves a complex plot about permanently blurring the lines between real life and the digital world, humanized by a family intimately involved with the development and propagation of the boost. Technology slowly erodes privacy inch by inch, forming a strong moral quandary, but it’s undermined by the grating portrayal of China as an unrelentingly evil country that will stop at nothing for dominance, as if the U.S. wasn’t capable of the same ruthless tactics. Baker’s ear for dialogue gives each character a unique voice, but sometimes the perspective shifts abruptly, and info dumps drag down the pace. This is a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and SF. (May)
|Review Date: March 15, 2011
Are you ready for machines to take over the world? How about just a game show to start with?
That’s just the scenario of BusinessWeek senior technology writer Baker’s (The Numerati, 2008) account of the difficult birth of Watson, the IBM computer that just won a championship round on Jeopardy.
Cleverly, the author’s narrative works regardless of the outcome—for
either way, the setup is the same: After the birth of Deep Blue, the
supercomputer that beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov
in a game of chess in 1997, IBM scientists set about building another
machine. This one, like all machines, basically knows nothing—but,
intriguingly, can approximate thought all the same. Imagine, as Baker
describes it, how we might parse this clue: “This facial ware made
Israel’s Moshe Dayan instantly recognizable worldwide.” You’d have to
know something about who Dayan was and probably have been around in the
day when the monocular Yul Brynner
look-alike walked the earth, whereas Watson would merely go through
millions of iterations of binary data by way of a process that, as Baker
notes, is “scandalously wasteful of computing resources” to arrive at
the correct answer: eyepatch. Scandalously wasteful, perhaps. But
imagine a few generations down the line, when Watson will have spawned
machines that, to name just one real-world application, can store the
texts of every medical-journal article ever written—weighing the newer
ones more favorably than those from, say, Victorian England—to aid
diagnosticians in their work. But how to get the machine to be able to
parse real-world data and skirt the shoals of puns, subtleties,
metaphors and all the other tricks human language allows? There’s the
rub, and Baker provides a fine, often entertaining account of the false
steps that led Watson, ever the literalist, to read Malcolm X as “Malcolm Ten” and to confuse Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist with the Pet Shop Boys.
Like Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine
(1981), Baker’s book finds us at the dawn of a singularity. It’s an
excellent case study, and does good double duty as a Philip K. Dick
|`Jeopardy,' IBM Had Big Reasons to Be Scared of Watson Match
By Andrew Dunn - Feb 18, 2011
Plenty of observers have weighed in on Watson, the computer that International Business Machines Corp. built and programmed to play the quiz show “Jeopardy!” Few have done it better than Stephen Baker, author of “Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.”
Baker, formerly the senior technology writer for Businessweek, got behind the scenes at Armonk, New York-based IBM to watch a team of scientists and engineers create a machine to compete in Sony Corp.’s beloved half-hour nerd-fest of answers and questions hosted by Alex Trebek.
Adding to the challenge was one of the computer’s flesh- and-blood opponents: Ken Jennings, the Joe DiMaggio of “Jeopardy!” who won a record 74 straight matches.
David Ferrucci, the chief scientist on the team that developed Watson -- named for IBM’s founder -- understood that no matter how fast the machine was, or how many facts they crammed into its database, humans like Jennings still possessed skills no one had been able to engineer with much success.
“Any ‘Jeopardy’ machine they built would struggle mightily to master language and common sense -- areas that come as naturally to humans as breathing,” Baker writes. “On the positive side, it wouldn’t suffer from nerves.”
Baker goes easy on the hard science behind Watson, referring readers to scholarly journals for technological details. Even his description of the hardware makes the technical tangible:
“The eight towers, each the size of a restaurant refrigerator, carried scores of computers on horizontal shelves, each about as big as a pizza box. The towers were tilted, like the one in Pisa, giving them more surface area for cooling.”
Instead, he plays up the skirmishes that break out at the border between person and processor. The most engaging chapter focuses on the controversy the Watson project sparked in the artificial-intelligence community.
Some scientists feared Watson would draw attention, and funding, away from their efforts to create machines that mimic human thought, a complex and not fully understood process.
“The world would see, and perhaps fall in love with, a machine that only simulated intelligence,” Baker writes. “The machine was too dumb, too ignorant, too famous, and too rich. (In that sense, IBM’s computer resembled lots of other television stars.)”
On a more mundane level, IBM and the producers of the show were concerned about image. IBM’s Deep Blue had triumphed over chess master Garry Kasparov in 1997, but chess is not “Jeopardy!” and chess tournaments in the U.S. don’t attract nine million viewers a night. Any failure by Watson could damage the brand.
“Jeopardy!” had its own concerns. The producers couldn’t be seen as rigging the game for or against the machine -- evoking the specter of the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s -- but they couldn’t allow the lightning-quick Watson to buzz in on every clue, steamrolling his human rivals. The solution: Watson got a mechanical thumb.
The tournament itself was taped in January and aired Feb. 14, 15 and 16. Watson’s strengths and flaws were manifest. Puns and wordplay stumped it (including a category devoted, ironically, to words found on a computer keyboard); while it excelled at more straightforward trivia such as Beatles lyrics.
Baker’s last chapter gives details of the broadcast not apparent to the TV audience, including judgment calls, equipment malfunctions (by the game board, not Watson) and the reason Watson answered a question about U.S. cities with “Toronto.”
In the end, Watson wiped the floor with his opponents, Jennings and Brad Rutter. Not only because he was knowledgeable -- both his opponents were, too -- but also because he was, after all, a machine: “It was its buzzer that killed us,” Rutter said.
Review: Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker
by Dan Sampson
February 10, 2011
Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker
On February 14th, 15th and 16th, man will be pitted against machine in a special three-part edition of Jeopardy!.
The venerable quiz show’s all-time greats, Brad Rutter and Ken
Jennings, will match wits with IBM’s super-computer, Watson, in a battle
royale of knowledge.
Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24) tells the story of Watson’s
development, from the initial grand idea to it’s unveiling as the
top-ranked challenger to previous big-time Jeopardy! winners.
In an age where computing technology has permeated almost every part
of life, and our reliance on it is greater than ever, the concepts of
knowledge and intelligence are due for an examination. To take an
obvious example, it is no longer necessary to remember a friend’s
telephone number as cellphones store the information for us. Similarly,
GPS gives us driving directions on demand, online banking ensures we pay
our bills on time, and the internet as a whole is a trove of
information that yields answers to almost any question with a simple
Google search. Needless to say, what we know and the information we need
to retain have both changed substantially over the years.
The beauty of Baker’s book is that it is more than just an account of
the IBM team’s efforts to build a machine that mimics human
intelligence (which is, to be sure, warmly and humorously described), it
is also a fascinating look at the nature of knowledge, understanding,
As Baker explains, when presented with a question human mental
processes run in parallel so we can parse the different components of
the question at the same time, getting us (at least) close to an answer
much faster. We also have the immeasurable advantage of understanding
context and, in a setting such as Jeopardy!, benefiting from
anticipation: a human contestant has an advantage since she knows the
category the question falls under so is already summoning and sorting
through all her knowledge of that subject. A computer, on the other
hand, doesn’t actually “know” anything. It has a defined set of data and
reacts only to input, so each question is, in effect, answered in a
Baker skillfully weaves the two threads of the story together, and
the book contains many passages that make the reader not only assess
what they think but how they think, and how they have absorbed and
stored the knowledge they possess. It’s books like this that remind us
there is still so much we don’t understand about our own brains, and
that the journey of discovery has only just begun.
Will Watson be triumphant? This might be the only occasion on which
I’ll suggest turning on the television instead of picking up a book, but
I have no choice…you’ll have to watch the show to find out.
Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything will be on bookshelves on February 17th. Pre-order now at HMHBooks.com.
By Tom Nissley
Earlier this week, I outlined my haphazard preparation
for what turned out to be nine bewilderingly fun games of Jeopardy!
(well, the ninth was less fun). Really, what my preparation amounted to
was forty years of turning my omnivore's flypaper outward toward the
world, and then spending a couple of weekends cramming in whatever extra
facts I thought might be most worth having stuck somewhere in my head.
Meanwhile, another Jeopardy! contestant was nearing the end of his
its training period: roughly four years of ingesting reams of
information, constructing guessing and wagering strategies, and playing
thousands of practice rounds, many of them against former Jeopardy!
champions, with the backing of a team of dozens of engineers, not to
mention 16 terabytes of state-of-the-art hardware.
is, of course, Watson, the machine built by IBM to win the next
generation in a line of John Henry-style challenges, this time battling
all-time Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day
match set to air Feb. 14-16. (One hopes that neither Jennings nor Rutter
will "die with a buzzer in his hand, lord, lord.") Stephen Baker, a
former technology reporter at BusinessWeek and the author of The Numerati,
a well-received book on the brave new world of data mining, got an
inside seat for the development of Watson, and he was at the taping of
Watson's shows last month. His account of the machine and the match, Final Jeopardy,
will be released the day after the shows air (a Kindle ebook is already
available, which readers can update for free with the final
chapter--about the match--beginning on the 17th).
Of course, I've had Jeopardy! on the brain lately, and I was very eager to read Final Jeopardy and
talk to Baker, and he was happy to talk too, although even off the
record he declined to divulge anything about the results of the big
match. The book is a fascinating glimpse into a high-profile
technological sprint, and, for those of us who care, an equally
interesting look at how to prepare for the game, if you are made of
silicon rather than carbon (although carbon-based forms could likely
learn a thing or two from the machine). I came away equally impressed by
the brainpower and determination that went into building a machine that
can play this very human game as well as any human can, and by the
remarkable machines we already have in our damp heads, which can still
(for a few months yet at least) hold their own against this
closet-sized, parallel-processing juggernaut.
You can get a
glimpse of how human Watson seems (especially when Jennings starts
beating it to the buzzer, and most especially when it says, "Let's
finish 'Chicks Dig Me'") in this advance clip of a practice game, and tonight, PBS's Nova has an hour-long documentary on Watson. And for my conversation with Baker about Final Jeopardy, you can listen to the two-part audio below, or read the transcript after the jump.
The Seattle Times
IBM computer squares off against 'Jeopardy!' champs
An IBM computer takes on top "Jeopardy!" champs
Feb. 14-16, including Seattle's Ken Jennings. Learn more about the
matchup through the book "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest
to Know Everything" and a NOVA documentary "The Smartest Machine on
By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor
"Jeopardy!" contestant Ken Jennings, who won a
record 74 consecutive games, refers to his opponent, an IBM computer
Why would IBM, one of the world's information powerhouses,
spend four years building a computer whose sole mission is to win a
television game show? A NOVA documentary airing Wednesday and a new
book, "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything" (Houghton Mifflin, $24) both explore IBM's quest, which goes to the core of how both humans and computers "think."
The television show is "Jeopardy!," described in the NOVA program as
"pop culture's IQ test." The computer is Watson, named after IBM's
founder, the repository of 10 million documents (no Internet surfing
allowed on "Jeopardy!") and the object of its programmers' arduous
attempts to get it to think like a human, including developing a knack
for the right bet. The human contestants: longtime "Jeopardy!" champions
Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, the Seattle-area resident whose 74-game
winning streak in 2004-05 was the longest in the show's history.
Both the documentary and the book, by technology writer Stephen
Baker, advance a man-vs.-machine match that will air Feb. 14, 15 and 16
(7:30 p.m., KOMO-TV) on "Jeopardy!" The prize is $1 million (if he
prevails, Jennings has promised to donate his winnings to local charity
Village Reach). The NOVA show and Baker's book cover the same material,
though the book is the place to go if you're really interested in this
version of the quest for creating Artificial Intelligence (AI).
The NOVA documentary begins with early footage of attempts to develop
AI in the 1950s and '60s (think clunky robots). Those projects showed
promise, but eventually they stalled out.
The AI concept got a boost with the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film "2001: A
Space Odyssey." Several AI scientists interviewed for NOVA describe
this film as a Proustian memory — remember HAL, the spacecraft computer
that plots to sabotage the mission? ("Open the pod door, Hal ... Hal?
Open the pod door, Hal!")
The idea that a computer could compete with a human's brain was
resurrected in 1997 with the match between chess champion Garry Kasparov
and IBM's "Deep Blue." The computer won, but programming a computer to
win at chess is an exponentially simpler task than "training" it to
understand the vagaries and nuances of human language.
The seed of the upcoming match was conceptualized in 2004, according
to one version of the story, when a senior manager in IBM research met
for dinner with a small team of employees in a New York state
steakhouse. Suddenly the entire restaurant cleared out, decamping to the
bar next door to watch the latest installment of Jennings' grand
winning streak. What was all the fuss about? thought the manager. An
idea was born — to match an IBM computer with contestants in the
Hollywood game-show world.
The NOVA documentary follows the development of "Watson" over four
years. If you're rooting for the humans, it's a pleasure to watch the
programmers squirm and scheme as they attempt to deconstruct the
intricacies of the "Jeopardy!" format (the host gives an answer; the
contestant must come up with a question that matches it). The answers
often rely on puns and double meanings, and a deep knowledge of pop
culture is required.
In a particularly satisfying moment, project manager David Ferrucci,
like a protective parent, gets seriously peeved when the host for a
"Jeopardy!" test round keeps making fun of Watson's clueless answers.
But the programmers persist, and Watson gets progressively less
clueless. Its accuracy rate marches uphill.
By now you may be wondering: What is the point of all this, other
than good fun on a few nights in February? Consider the possible
applications for a computer that can intelligently answer humans'
questions, writes Baker: Computers that staff customer-service call
centers; answer arcane tax questions; research legal precedents; delve
into mountains of obscure medical research like "a bionic Dr. House,"
after the grouchy hero of a popular TV show.
Baker's lively book is available now as an e-book — except for the
final chapter. He will write that after the match, and the final version
of the book (in print and e-book) will be published Feb. 17. That last
chapter should be a doozy. This match has as many implications as
another man vs. machine contest, that of John Henry versus the steam
drill. Of course, we all know how that came out.
The Broke and the Bookish
Title/Author: Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker
Publisher/Year Published:2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
How I got this book: I got this as an eBook from netGalley
Why I read this book: I love three things. Reading, Jeopardy and computers. This book is the love child of those things
Rating: 4.5 stars
I love Jeopardy. I have no idea why, but lately I have just been
so into the show that I have the DVR set to auto-record. When I heard
that there was going to be a match between a computer and the two famous
Jeopardy winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, I was instantly
excited. But this excitement led to some questions. How was it built? Is
Watson just hooked up to a search engine or were their complex
algorithms involved? But even before that, how would you teach the
computer enough about the English language to be able to perform a
search let alone play Jeopardy?
Then I found this book.
Final Jeopardy not only holds the answers to my above questions,
but really delves into the man vs. machine thought. How do we as humans
learn a language? How do we measure perception? And then once we know
all of this, how do we teach it to a machine? If you are even the
slightest bit interested in artificial intelligence this book is for
you. At the same time, it is not so down in the computery depths that
someone who knows little of data-mining algorithms won't be able to
understand. I think it is a very accessible book.
If you think about it, it is quite a lot to teach a computer to
understand English. I remember one example from a pre-Watson project
that the book points out. The question was "What was Fracis Scott Key
best known for?" A computer could recognize Francis and Scott as names
but Key may be a noun. "In its hunt, the computer might even spend a
millisecond or two puzzling over Key lime Pies." Then, Baker points out,
there isn't even a verb in the question so even if the computer went to
the Wikipedia page of Francis Scott Key it could guess that he was
"best known" for being an American lawyer!
But that was the beginning. This book is seriously an awesome journey
into the depths of computer human interaction, as well as delving into
the puzzling quirks of language. Why did it lose a half star? There were
points that dragged a bit longer than I wanted, but not too badly. The
way I am thinking, the things that I thought were too long were probably
the part someone else really was looking forward to and vice versa.
But I still have more book left. A partial eBook was released the 26th
which does not include the last chapter called "The Match." They are
holding this chapter until after the match airs from the 14th through
the 16th. If you buy the partial eBook, the final chapter will arrive as
an update after the match on the 16th.
I am highly interested in computers and language, but I think if you are
even remotely interested in the evolution of technology (the technology
of the Future, if you will), give this book a try. I am excited to have
read it in preparation for the match, because now I get to be the know
it all who gets to say "You know how they made that right? It's not just
a search engine"
A partial eBook is available now. It holds off the final chapter
(which talks about the outcome of the match, which airs February 14 -
16). If you buy the partial eBook, the final chapter will arrive as an
update after the match on the 16th. The hardback book will be out in
stores the 17th.
|- Julia, January 27, 2011
The Book Bag
If you are in the slightest bit paranoid, worry that Big Brother
is always watching or like to believe that you are not a number, but a
free man (or woman), then this may not be the book for you, as it will
do nothing to dispel any of those worries. If, on the other hand, you
think 'the mathematical modelling of humanity' sounds like one of the
sexiest things ever, and are chomping at the bit to learn more about
it, then you might well be interested in what Business Week journalist
Baker has to say.
It's 2009 and with technology zooming ahead at a startling
rate, millions of pieces of data are being gathered about each and
every one of us on a daily basis. From the websites you visit to how
long you spend there and the ads you click on, from the regularity with
which you buy cereal and caviar, either alone or in the same shop, to
your opinions on the important (politics) and less important
(deodorant) issues of the day, you provide an unthinkable amount of
information to anyone who is prepared to listen, without even thinking
about it. For a long time this has provided a rich but untapped data
source, sitting idle for those with the resources or skills to analyse
it, and now that time has come.
Did you know, for example, that there are people whose sole
purpose in life (at least from 9-5) is to build and refine massive,
number crunching machines that pour over vast streams of data at the
speed of light and pick out the subtle patterns from it all, providing
answers to questions you've never bothered to think about: How much
would a shop have to lower the price to tempt shoppers of a certain age
or income to switch from Coke to Pepsi? Does the time a cow spends
snoozing in the shade affect the quality of the meat it will give a
year down the line? Can changes in the number of words a person
regularly uses be an accurate predictor of early onset Alzheimer's?
Does your definition of the word 'justice' indicate a firm political
allegiance, or mark you out as potential useful swing voter?
This book, split into sections which focus on shopping,
terrorism, medicine and voting among others, takes us on a whirlwind
tour of this emerging new field, and how it relates to each and every
one of us. Because, whether we like the idea or not, there are people
out there who monitor our every move. They might not know our names or
shoe sizes, but they know which neighbourhoods we live in, what we
spend our money on, how we relax at the weekends, even what our blood
pressure has looked like over the last few readings. Using all this
information, they can and do pull together profiles, and batch us in
with other people with similar values, income levels or lifestyles
(healthy or otherwise). Then the fun really starts, as everything from
in-store price promotions to mail shots and newspaper adverts are then
targeted to reach the right people with the right message. It takes bog
standard market research to a whole new level, and it's either
fascinating or scary, depending on how you look at it.
People have been categorised through social profiling forever.
Way back when it was demographic classification based on your age, your
race, you post code, your income level. The same principles still
apply, but using technology, companies can drill down deeper, looking
at more intricate groupings at the flick of a button. What's more, once
they have this information, Baker discovers, some companies will treat
you rather differently. Some offer preferential rates to old versus new
customers, or those from a certain 'tribe' (the new equivalent of
Social grades A, B, C1 etc) or penalise others when they think they can
get away with doing so.
So where does all this data come from? While some of it
originates from the traditional sources of public records or mailing
lists, increasingly it is us, the consumers, who provide it. Or, as
Baker says, Today we spy on ourselves and send electronic updates minute by minute.
And it's not just what we say, but how we say it too – looking at
blogs, for example, some machines use subtleties such as choice of font
type or colour and frequency of emoticons to draw all sorts of
conclusions about the authors. There's not a lot we can do about it,
either. While your initial reaction after the chapter on shopping might
be to ditch the loyalty cards and deprive Mr Tesco of his constant
stream of data about your personal shopping habits, it's soon clear
that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and like it or not, you are
being analysed and targeted in many other ways outside the supermarket
This is not a book about computers taking over the world.
Though artificial intelligence is better than it's ever been, many of
the companies featured in the book still do things the old fashioned
(i.e. human) way, just with a little help from their electronic
friends. Imagine you want to know how many times a certain word appears
in an electronic text – no one with any sense would read through it
manually counting by hand when you have CTRL F for precisely that. The
companies we learn about do exactly the same – they use the computers
to identify patterns and flag them up so that a for-now-still-human eye
can digest them. That level of comprehension is still needed, until
computers can factor in every variable for what is significant, and
filter out the rest. And, someone has to tell the computer what to look
for in the first place.
The chapter on medicine was one of the most interesting for me,
but also perhaps one of the most unreal at this time. Predictive
analytics is a fascinating area, but the idea that certain illnesses
can be predicted is still a bit of a fantasy at present. The chapter on
online dating which followed, perhaps a little illogically, was also
intriguing as it examined the science of attraction and the idea of a
formula for matchmaking ideal partners.
Baker writes with journalistic flare and the book is well
structured, engaging and suitably simple that even the most data
illiterate of us can understand it. After all, it's not so much about
the numbers, per se, as what those numbers represent. It has a bit of
an American angle to it, but that doesn't make it less relevant to us
on this side of the pond, since the concepts are similar, even if we're
not, as yet, quite as obsessive about some of the areas such as health
insurance eligibility or premiums.
The book poses a lot of questions, but provides answers to the
vast majority, and food for though with the remainder. The readable
style had me ploughing through the pages quickly, and each chapter
brought fresh insights into an area I'd really not thought much about
before. What this book won't do, however, is tell you all the inside
secrets. You'll learn about the various different companies who feast
on our data, and the various different things they use it for, but just
like a magician, they don't reveal their secrets. But, while you might
not understand the finer points of the complex computer coding
involved, you're still left pondering the implications of it all.
Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.
If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and The Tiger that Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot.
The Wall Street Journal
|Mr. Baker offers a highly
readable and fascinating account of the number-driven world we now live
Drilling Through Data
By JOHN DERBYSHIRE
September 15, 2008
The world is buried in data, great banks and drifts
ofthe stuff. In recent years a new technology has emerged:
computerprograms that will drill through it all to pick out patterns
and trends-- information that may be useful to marketers, politicians,
employers,doctors, matchmakers or national-security analysts. Such
programs are extraordinarily sophisticated, and their creators need to
be veryclever indeed. A doctorate in math or computer science is pretty
much required. Stephen Baker calls such whizzes the Numerati. Using
"datamining," they seek out veins of useful ore in the mountains of
factsthat computers accumulate every day.
In "The Numerati," Mr. Baker offers a highly
readable and fascinating account of the number-driven world we now live
in. He shows us, for instance, how political consultants, mining
databases that track consumer and "lifestyle" preferences, sort us into
tribes bybehavioral proxy. Cat owner? Likely Democrat. NRA member?
Probably Republican. Mailings and phone calls can then be targeted
more accurately. Health professionals, especially when treating
older patients, are now monitoring such things as weight, body
temperature and pulse by having a computer follow data streams from
sensors on clothing or even from sensor-laden "magic carpets" laid
around the house. Disturbing patterns prompt the computer to signal a
problem. The Numerati are taking over dating services, too. How do you
find that special one in a million? By mining the data of the million.
How do you improve your own chances of being found? By the same
techniques that companies use to show up first in a Google inquiry --
"search engine optimization," now a flourishing industry.
The Numerati are even mining the output of
bloggers, those stream-of-consciousness online diarists and
self-promoters. "What makes the blog world especially valuable to
marketers," Mr. Baker writes, is "its unfiltered immediacy." What do
consumers think of your new product? What desires are still not
satisfied by products of this kind? You can commission a poll or wait
for the sales figures to come in . . . or you can read the blogs. Better
yet, you can hire Numeratito write programs that will read them for
you, since there are now more than 20 million bloggers in the U.S.
By Stephen Baker
(Houghton Mifflin, 244 pages, $26)
There is active advertising to be done on blogs,
too.If you read these things, or write one, you know that Google's
Adsense service will automatically place context-related ads on a blog
page,splitting the click-measured revenue with the blogger. So far, so
good.But Adsense has set in motion an ugly arms race online as
robotbloggers -- clever computer programs -- have generated hundreds
of thousands of spam blogs, or "splogs."
A splog, though unreadable, is seeded with words that
will attract Google ads. A computer-user may be annoyed at finding
himself staring at a screenfull of gibberish but click on an ad anyway,
allowing the robot blogger to harvest revenue. This sleight of hand has
the Numerati hard at work getting their software to distinguish between
a blog and a splog. Mr.Baker gives a helpful sketch of the math
involved, each blog reduced to a vector in a space of several dozen
In Mr. Baker's chapter on terrorism, we meet
Numerati who seek traces of the abnormal and unexpected in their data
sets and who must then try to identify the individual "subjects of
interest" who are generating those traces. The task of matching abnormal
data to actual individuals, though, presents problems -- their names,
for example. Researching a book about math once, I turned up 32
different Latin-alphabet spellings of the Russian name "Chebyshev."
Arabic,Indian, Chinese and African names present especially
daunting challenges. Mr. Baker quotes a Numeratus, a Ph.D. in
computational linguistics, who has researched the electronic recognition
of names for more than 20 years: "Untangling global names," he says,
"will continue to confound us for generations."
To make things worse, terrorists themselves
aredata-savvy and skillful exploiters of the Internet. "Hundreds of
DutchWeb Sites Hacked by Islamic Hackers" reads the headline on a
technical news site I was just reading. Jihadists may want to take us
back to the seventh century, but they are willing to detour through the
21st to get us there. It doesn't help that our National Security Agency,
the proper home of anti-terrorist Numerati, is restricted to hiring U.S.
citizens and paying civil-service salaries while their competitors
inrecruitment -- Yahoo, Google, IBM Research -- can cast their
networld-wide and engage in bidding wars for top talent.
So the Numerati follow the electronic trails that
we all now leave behind us as we work, shop, travel, date, trade or
fall sick: What then of our privacy? What if the NSA, having scrutinized
my data trail and determined that I am not a terrorist, sees that I may
be cheating on my taxes? Or that I am running for public office
while subscribing to a pornography service? Mr. Baker cites Jeff Jonas,
a security Numeratus who got his start working for casinos (places
also keen to spot "subjects of interest"). "We technologists," Mr.
Jonas warns, "had better spend a little more time thinking about what
we'recreating." Mr. Baker acknowledges that privacy is a problem -- we
are,after all, the raw material of data mining. Are we also
its beneficiaries? He offers a qualified "yes."
Mr. Derbyshire is the author of "Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem of Mathematics."
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Die große Überrumpelung
Von Milos Vec
16. März 2009 Das
Bonmot, wonach die Zukunft früher auch besser war, hat einen wahren
Kern. Ihn bilden empirisch überprüfbare Hoffnungen und Ängste über das,
was uns künftig erwarten mag. Die große Kulisse für das Theater der
Fortschrittsgefühle bilden jene Wissenschaftsrevolutionen, die in den
vergangenen Jahren in dichter Folge über uns hereingebrochen sind.
Disziplinen ändern ihr Profil, sie verbinden sich mit anderen
Fachrichtungen zu neuen Handlungsmöglichkeiten. Was an den Peripherien
von Fächern und scheinbar verstreut geschieht, wirkt sich infolge
zunehmender Vernetzungen in rasanter Weise gesellschaftlich aus. Das
geschieht häufig unerwartet für die Betroffenen und auch für den
Zwei kompakt geschriebene Bücher folgen den Spuren
zweier atemberaubender disziplinärer Umwälzungen, deren Konsequenzen
bereits jetzt praktisch greifbar sind. Stephen Baker ist mit seinem
Band „Die Numerati“ auf Spurensuche bei den Mathematikern und
Informatikern, die unsere Daten lesen und im Auftrag wechselnder
Agenten interpretieren. Helga Nowotny und Giuseppe Testa denken in
ihrem Buch „Die gläsernen Gene“ über die gesellschaftlichen Folgen der
Im Visier der „Numerati“
Den zunächst disparat
klingenden Themen ist mehr gemeinsam, als es auf den ersten Blick
scheint. Sie verdeutlichen, welche regulatorischen Herausforderungen
für eine Gesellschaft zu meistern sind, in der der zeitliche Abstand
von Grundlagenforschung zu Anwendung geschrumpft ist, in der
Grundbegriffe unseres Weltverständnisses neu mit Inhalten gefüllt
werden und in denen es noch kaum Übereinkünfte über die angemessenen
Standards in Recht und Ethik gibt.
Bakers Buch „Die Numerati“ ist
anschaulich um sieben Personenkreise komponiert, bei denen die
Datenrevolution aktuell besondere Leistungsversprechungen macht oder
womöglich schön eingelöst hat: Arbeitende, Käufer, Wähler, Blogger,
Terroristen, Patienten, Liebende lauten Bakers personalisierende
Kapitel. Sie sind im Visier der „Numerati“, seines neuen Kollektivs aus
Mathematikern und Informatikern, das in der Lage sei, „die
Informationen in unserem Leben zu beherrschen“.
Partnersuche per Fragebogen oder in der Dorfdisco?
Die technische Botschaft Bakers lautet auf all diesen Feldern
optimistisch, dass Statistiker weitreichende Schlüsse aus unserem
Verhalten ziehen können: Mit einigen Angaben ist der Bürger in seinen
Werthaltungen und politischen Orientierungen klassifiziert und in
seinem Konsumverhalten entlarvt; immer ist er dabei manipulierbar.
Baker neigt dabei wie seine wissenschaftlichen Protagonisten zu
Pauschalierungen und Gruppenbildungen, seine Szenarien entsprechen
nicht unbedingt den Alltagserfahrungen. Netzbewohner, denen der
Computer schon so manches völlig unpassende Produkt nahebringen wollte,
weil er sich über Cookies auf der richtigen Spur unseres Geschmacks
wähnte, wissen das.
Auch wenn man der Leistungszuversicht also
(noch) nicht folgen will, so bleibt doch die Faszination einer
kollektiven Anstrengung, das data mining zu optimieren. Baker berichtet
über die automatisierte Auswertung der Einträge von Bloggern, aus denen
Werber herauslesen wollen, wie ihr Produkt öffentlich dasteht; die
amerikanischen Wahlkampfmaschinerien möchten wissen, wo und wann der
Einsatz um schwankende Wähler besonders lohnt. Patienten und Ärzte
fragen, welche Indikatoren verlässliche Rückschlüsse auf bestimmte
Krankheiten zulassen, die die Praktiker in der klinischen Zeitnot und
situativen Beschränktheit nicht ermitteln können. Je komplexer die
Herausforderung wird, desto neugieriger darf man auf das Ergebnis sein.
Ob die Partnersuche per Fragebogen doch mal zu brauchbareren
Ergebnissen führen wird als die Spontaneinschätzung in der Dorfdisco?
Ein knappes und gedankenreiches Buch
im Kurs stehen bei Baker die Abwehr terroristischer Gefahren durch
Datensammeln. Überwachungstechnologien am Arbeitsplatz werden nicht als
jener Horror benannt, als die sie sich auch ohne rechtswidrige
Übergriffe darstellen. Umso dankbarer darf man dem Übersetzer für jene
Fußnote sein, die auf rechtskulturelle Differenzen beim Datenschutz
verweist. Ein weiteres Fragezeichen gehörte hinter jene Weltsicht, die
von einer technokratischen Planungs- und Steuerungseuphorie getragen
Ein Parallelstück zur Mobilisierung der Statistik bilden
die von Nowotny und Testa beschriebenen „gläsernen Gene“. Ihre
Sichtbarkeit repräsentiert die Biomedizin, welche unsere Identität
aktuell durch wissenschaftliche Dechiffrierungen neu erfindet: Wer wir
sind und was wir sein könnten, ist zugleich gewisser und ungewisser
denn je. Dem Autorentandem ist das Kunststück gelungen, ein ebenso
knappes wie gedankenreiches Buch zu schreiben, das vor allem durch
seine Kombination von Ausgewogenheit, Scharfsinn und
Der bioethische Diskurs ändert die Parameter
man dem Buch in seiner Bestandsaufnahme, dann wird nach der
biomedizinischen Revolution kaum etwas beim Alten bleiben. Anders als
Baker können der Molekularbiologe Testa und die Wissenschaftssoziologin
Nowotny auch die theoretischen Implikationen benennen. Zu den
Diskontinuitäten gehört, dass die Natur ihre moralische Autorität
verliert; dass sich Natürlichkeit als ein zunehmend fragwürdiges
kulturelles Konstrukt entpuppt.
Was die Forschungslabors
hervorgebracht haben, ist durch Kommerzialisierungen schneller an die
Gesellschaft herangetreten, als wir vor wenigen Jahren wahrhaben
wollten. Die Überrumpelung zieht eine Leere nach sich, die durch
Faktizität aufgefüllt wird.
Wo Bakers munterer Technikoptimismus
im kecken Staunen endet, da diktieren Nowotny und Testa präzise die
Zukunftsfragen: Was ist Leben, was heißt Gemeinschaft oder
Zugehörigkeit und was Individuum? Schon jetzt ist erkennbar, wie die
Standardsetzung im bioethischen Diskurs die Parameter ändert. Nationale
Gesetze werden teils flankiert, teils unterminiert durch neue
Institutionen und ihre normativen Produkte. Anstelle des Parlaments und
seiner verbindlich klaren Vorgaben wird es zunehmend hybride und
fragmentierte Formen von Regulierungen geben.
Einhegung des Neuen
fügt sich gut in die Szenarien des Wandels von Staatlichkeit, die auch
durch andere Felder vorangetrieben werden. Was manchem wie eine
bedenkliche Schwächung von tradierter Nationalstaatlichkeit anmutet,
wird von Nowotny und Testa ausdrücklich gutgeheißen. Ihre Präferenzen
lauten Prozeduralisierung, Audits, Governance-Netzwerke: Das Neue ist
mehr Diskurs als Antwort, mehr Pluralität als hegemoniale Deutungen.
Vermutlich, sagen sie, wird es die angloamerikanische Kultur mit ihrem
richterlich geprägten Case Law besser in den Griff bekommen als das
kontinentale Recht in seiner Vorliebe für das Gesetz.
wird gerade von den beiden Wissenschaftlern die Regulierungsaufgabe
stärker herausgestellt als beim Beobachter Baker. Trotz ihrer
Zurückhaltung gegenüber harten Verboten ist ihr Buch von einer
untergründigen Skepsis gegen die Segnungen vermehrten Wissens
durchdrungen. Das Neue wird durch technische, ethische und rechtliche
Standards eingehegt werden müssen, deren Konturen wir noch nicht
kennen. Schon die Repräsentation von Wissen und von Identität wird die
Linien der Intervention vorgeben. Es liegt nahe, dies auch als
Selbstbeobachtung der Wissenschaft zu verstehen. Die skeptische
Positionierung wäre dann ein Plädoyer für Zurückhaltung: Auf hohem
Wohlstands- und Wissensniveau werden die Entscheidungen komplizierter,
und manche Technovision verliert an Reiz.
The Guardian (UK)
Or revenge of the math nerds, in which a BusinessWeek reporter hangs out with millionaire techies in
the vanguard of data mining. "The Numerati," he announces, "want to
calculate for each of us a huge and complex maze of numbers and
equations." Once they have us mathematically modelled, they can better
target us with political ads or supermarket offers. Um, great. But
also, nanomachines in your body could deliver streams of data to
monitor your health in real time and nip illnesses in the bud they are
already doing it with slightly bigger machines shoved into surprised
The book is breezy and colourful, if vague on technicalities (see
Ian Ayress more detailed Super Crunchers ). Happily, Baker also has a
streak of scepticism. A 75% success rate in demographic analysis might
be OK for political campaigns, but the maths will have to get a lot
stricter, he warns, when applied to fields such as "medicine and
policing". (Do you want to be put in Guantanamo Bay on a 75% chance
that you are a terrorist? Oh wait, that already happens.) And floods of
personal data can always be turned to invidious purposes. Quick, cut up
your supermarket "loyalty" card and wear a hoodie.
Public: Information: Books: Not strictly
a numbers game: A new breed of data analysts is invading our privacy
BYLINE: Christopher Exeter
SECTION: PUBLIC; Pg. 47
The Numerati, by
Stephen Baker, Jonathan Cape, £17.99
The 1936 Charlie
Chaplin movie, Modern Times, tells a tale of Little Tramp and his struggle to
survive in the modern, highly industrialised world as a factory worker on an
assembly line. The factory's desire for mundane tasks to be performed ever more
quickly leads to workers having to be force-fed, ultimately leading to Little
Tramp suffering a mental breakdown.
Chaplin's movie holds
eerie parallels with today's paranoia with collecting, collating and analysing
data. Both the public and private sectors are obsessed with what we do and how
we live. Each day we innocently leave trails of data about ourselves in our
wake, which are then crunched and munched by a new intelligentsia that Stephen
Baker calls the numerati. His book explains how they have unknowingly
infiltrated our lives, analysing what we do and then manipulating our
Through a series of
vignettes - worker, shopper, voter, blogger, terrorist, patient and lover -
Baker explains how our lives are mathematically modelled. Sometimes the
transformation this brings is good, but in many instances it is not, and
serious public policy problems are raised, most notably over privacy.
Baker's book is a
fascinating and terrifying account of our modern times. And as with Chaplin's
movie, you can't help but think that those who are driven to collect
unnecessary data about our lives - the police, supermarkets, local authorities,
the identity and passport service and others - will eventually be driven
paradoxically mad by their pointless endeavours.
In the future, human motivations won't be sifted only by the
psychologists and ministers, but increasingly by the "numerati," those
high priests of data who, like God, know us better than we know
Stephen Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, has just published a new book on these folks called (appropriately) The Numerati.
He looks at the same world Tancer sees—one where computer-crunched data
can answer both our deepest and our most trivial questions about human
behavior—but he's always wondering to himself about what might be lost
in the process of tabulating a life.
Not that the tabulation is avoidable. "Turning us into simple
numbers was what happened in the industrial age," Baker notes. "That
was yesterday's story." But it took the advent of the computer before
this rage to quantify escaped the factory floor.
Understanding people is hard work. Computers promise to make the
task easier, but at a cost; because they can only understand coded and
categorized data, coded and categorized data is sought out by the
numerati in industries ranging from retailing to casinos. All the
squishy stuff—emotions, for instance—count for little unless they
contribute in some way to the data store. Behavior that can't be turned
into numbers is simply bracketed, left out of the machine analysis
Baker treks across the country, talking with various numerati, the
data wizards who work in advertising, retailing, national defense,
human resources, and health care. Despite his constant skeptical
impulse, Baker's talks also convince him that there's an upside to the
quantification of human life. Once computers can act on data, they
become capable of finding patterns, unexpected matches that a human
could never decipher. When done well, the work of the numerati makes
our lives better by providing ads we want to see, products we want to
buy, a safer world, jobs that better fit our skills and interests,
health care that matches our bodies and genetic makeup. Think of it as
the benefit of computerized hypertargeting.
Not that easy access to all this data generally makes the public
feel warm and fuzzy—the opposite is often true. For instance, a
Carnegie Mellon student recently found that given only three data
points—gender, birth date, and ZIP code—87 percent of the US could be
pinpointed by name. Yes, technology is amazing, but isn't there
something vaguely disquieting about having one's identity plucked so
easily from among 300 million US residents? And reduced to only two
numbers and a letter?
"The implications may sound a bit Big
Brother-esque, but Baker believes we have as much to benefit as to
Baker, a BusinessWeek writer, believes that a world broken
down into ones and zeroes - the tools of mathematical algorithms - can
be reassembled to offer rich and useful portraits of its inhabitants.
"Numerati" he describes are the computer experts, analysts and
statisticians able to sift through the mounds of data we produce every
day when we surf the Web, chat on our cell phones, and shop.
idea is to use mathematical modeling so bosses will get the most work
from us. Retailers will make sure we see the most effective
advertising. Pollsters will be able to predict with great accuracy who
we will vote for.
In punchy chapters with titles such as "worker"
and "voter," Baker chronicles the most forward thinking of the Numerati
in their efforts to make an impact.
In one of the more
provocative sections, Baker pays a visit to IBM's Thomas J. Watson
Research Center where a mathematician is building a database of the
company's employees. It breaks each worker into a set of skills and
knowledge that will help IBM match people to work in much more
In another section, Baker and his wife sign up
for an internet dating service, logging in interests and desires to see
if they will be matched.
The implications may sound a bit Big
Brother-esque, but Baker believes we have as much to benefit as to
risk. He hits privacy concerns hard, and explains that with time, we
can use these tools to our advantage. And he leaves readers with a
curious desire to study math.
Las Vegas Business Press
Math appeal: How number-crunchers have you pegged
Back in school, solving math problems could feel like playing
detective. An exercise would give lengths for three sides of a figure
and let you solve for the fourth. With formulas, or in some cases,
algorithms, you'd find X. In "The Numerati," author Stephen Baker
describes a world in which people become the math and behavior becomes
the mystery. Everyone watching us, including marketers, politicians and
bosses, take data we've given them and use algorithms and numeric tools
to forecast what we'll do next.
Numerati" describes how our gadget-infested society has created troves
of clues about our habits. Grocery-store loyalty-card swipes hint about
what we eat. Google searches trace ideas zipping through our heads.
Cell phone calls track who we know.
The next step, Baker writes,
is drawing connections and conclusions; math wizards -- the Numerati --
and computers will do it. Our data pile is titanic; a comScore study
earlier this year found that Yahoo, for example, gathers 110 billion
pieces of data a month from users.
Numerati world that Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, describes is both
chilling and hopeful. In it, bosses will have a precise way to measure
how many keystrokes, mouse clicks and Web visits produce work (scary).
But doctors will use machines to monitor our health constantly,
spotting problems before they become harder and more expensive to treat
|"The Numerati" by Stephen Baker, 256 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $26.
growth pushed Numerati into shopping, Baker argues. Before World War
II, smaller stores served smaller areas, he argues, and service was
personal. Merchants knew who shopped and could show them what they
Industrialization changed everything, Baker writes.
Stores grew, ownership decentralized and shoppers had to find items
themselves. In the future, computer chips or radio-frequency tags in
loyalty cards will combine with in-shop cameras to restore the
shopkeeper's guiding hand, Baker argues.
"When the stores get to
know us, they'll recognize us ..." he writes. "They may calculate we're
running short on cat kibbles and they won't forget that we spike a
gallon or two of eggnog every holiday season."
In the office,
Baker shows how e-mail tracks communication and productivity. Messaging
shows who talks to whom in and across departments. E-mail can spot a
tortured soul: Someone who messages infrequently may be depressed and
looking to leave. Or it could spot a distressed company: A torrent of
messages from an informal klatch detailed Enron Corp.'s disintegration.
research brings him to Las Vegas, where he watches for cheats in visits
to a casino's "crow's nest." Monitor-watching security staff think they
have one when they see a woman illegally toss an extra $5 chip on an
already placed bet. (She was drunk, not crooked, it turns out). Baker
also meets Jeff Jonas, who founded data-mining company Systems Research
and Development in Las Vegas after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
Jonas, Baker recounts, started locally in 1995,
developing aquarium-tracking software at The Mirage. Fish were
disappearing, meaning some were eating others; Jonas' system, Baker
wrote, gauged fish survival rates by type, so the hotel-casino could
invest in those likeliest to survive.
Jonas graduated from
tracking fish to tracking people, building a system called NORA --
nonobservational relationship awareness. The system, Baker writes,
sifted casino data, from personnel files to credit card applications,
looking for common threads with known cheats, goons and grifters.
might see, for example, that Krista, who was on the suspect list, has
the same phone number as Tammy, who had just applied for a job as a
The system didn't decide whether Krista and
Tammy were partners in crime, Baker writes; people had to explore the
tie. For all of their data collection, the systems "The Numerati"
describes could spark wrong conclusions. In a medical example,
machinery detected an 8-pound overnight spike in a woman's weight. The
woman's fluids hadn't surged; her dog had joined her in bed. In a
computer dating example, Chemistry.com, though informed with profiles, almost failed to match the author and his wife.
shopper-chasing data miners incorrectly surmise that a buyer of
Brussels sprouts and Diet Coke will also buy mahi mahi, consequences
are minor; a cash register will dispense unwanted coupons. But mistakes
in terrorist-chasing data-mining can destroy lives.
sold Systems Research and Development to IBM for undisclosed millions,
told Baker he fears the technological march to track us will escalate
indefinitely; more machines will gather our data, more cameras will
track our steps. If mounting data are mishandled and misconstrued,
Jonas says, public privacy is threatened and innocent people may be
falsely tied to crooks. Therefore, to protect privacy, Baker writes,
Jonas has built protections into NORA. The system will sift lists for
ties to known terrorists, but until data matches appear and companies
ask for names, people's identities will stay secret.
Numerati" could leave people confounded by calculus in despair; math
would seem to offer the best, or only, path to career success. Baker
"And the rest of us? We should grasp the basics of math
and statistics -- certainly better than we do today -- but still follow
what we love," he writes. "The world doesn't need millions of mediocre
mathematicians and there's plenty of opportunity for specialists in
Matthew Crowley is a copy editor for the Business Press' sister publication, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0304.
The Independent (UK)
Imagine a future in which our bosses work to get the best out of us,
where retailers regularly bombard us with targeted advertising, where
pollsters try to predict our voting habits and dating agencies our
romantic preferences. Sounds rather like now, doesn't it?But with the help of the Numerati – those computer experts, statisticians and
analysts that give Stephen Baker's book its title – advertisers, employers
and the rest will be able to pinpoint our tastes with ever increasing
But with the help of the Numerati – those computer experts, statisticians and
analysts that give Stephen Baker's book its title – advertisers, employers
and the rest will be able to pinpoint our tastes with ever increasing
From medical records to movie tastes, more of our personal information is
becoming available to those who know how to tap the digital stream, and it's
being exploited to track and predict our shopping lists, our political
predilections, even the state of our health. The Numerati's ongoing project,
writes Baker, is "the mathematical modelling of humanity."
Much of his book is made up of information that anyone who's been paying
attention already knows or could surmise. By turning a person's habits at
work or play into numerical data, computers can analyse behaviour for the
benefit of employers who want to optimise their workforce, digital marketers
trying to ensnare us based on the content of our emails, and so on. "Advertisers,"
Baker writes, "can anticipate people's online journeys – and sprinkle
their paths with just the right ads."
This much is familiar to anyone who regularly uses the internet. That such
processes are becoming more sophisticated isn't surprising in itself. Baker
often fails to give enough mathematical detail to make those processes
fascinating, and rarely produces compelling portraits of the Numerati
themselves. Instead we get vague descriptions of the views from their office
windows, or of the coffee shops in which he waits with his laptop to meet
The book also suffers from poor timing by touching on pollsters' activities in
Virginia during the 2005 gubernatorial election. Evidently written before
the recent presidential election, it misses a trick: there's surely another
book to be written about the number crunching of Obama's personal Numerati
The narrative nonetheless heats up in the chapter on voting patterns. Baker
describes with some clarity the shift from easily definable social and voter
demographics in previous decades, to the current fragmentation, with today's
Democrats frequently hiding among communities of Republicans and vice versa.
Pollsters now require far more detailed data to do their jobs, while
advertisers need more advanced tools to help consumers to cut through the
crap in a world of endless choice.
Later in the book, Baker and his wife become willing guinea pigs for an online
dating agency eager to prove its matchmaking skills. Set up at first with a
slew of unfamiliar women, Baker soon realises that he's entered his age
preferences incorrectly. He tweaks his online profile and – hey presto! – up
pops Mrs Baker at the top of the list. The site matches partners using not
only their stated preferences, but also the elements of their personality
that are unintentionally revealed in their profile by, for instance, the
breadth of their vocabulary. Even our love lives can be broken down into
ones and zeroes.
On the other hand, the author is at pains to emphasise the Numerati's
limitations. Computers might be able to cope with extremely complex tasks,
but some of the most simple human skills are beyond them, such as picking
out the words "Osama bin Laden" in different languages – the name
has 11 different spellings in Chinese alone, which a computer must be taught.
In a constructive conclusion, Baker stresses that the work of the Numerati
needn't be sinister. They aren't some crack squad of computerised clergy
holding sway over our every thought; they want to make our lives easier.
Wouldn't you rather be targeted with ads matched to your tastes than a barrage
of irrelevant promotions? Isn't it comforting to think there are
increasingly efficient ways to second guess terrorism? And surely any early
warning system for future health problems should be welcomed? Meanwhile,
computer models that track an employee's productivity will doubtless prove
useful to any HR departments looking to make savings during a lean 2009. The
Numerati can, and probably will, provide them with the necessary tools.
Reseña: Los Numerati Stephen Baker
Descifrando nuestro ADN digital
novedad editorial busca explicar cómo cada click, cada llamada
telefónica, cada compra con tarjeta bancaria, va construyendo el perfil
de cada uno de nosotros.
Miguel Ángel Vargas Vaca
que estás en un café, quizás en el mismo tan ruidoso en el que yo estoy
sentado ahora. Una mujer en la mesa de tu derecha está tecleando en su
laptop. Giras tu cabeza hacia su pantalla. Ella navega en internet. Tú
observas. Las horas pasan. Ella lee un periódico en línea. Te percatas
que ha leído tres artículos sobre China. Sondea películas para ver el
viernes en la noche y ve los cortos de Kung Fu Panda. Da un
click en un anuncio que promete conectarla con sus compañeros de la
preparatoria. Tú te quedas sentado tomando notas. Con cada minuto que
pasa, estás aprendiendo más sobre ella. Ahora imagina que pudieras
observar a 150 millones de personas navegando al mismo tiempo”.
Así inicia el libro Los Numerati (The Numerati) de
Stephen Baker, y no hay mejor de resumir lo que tratará. Esta novedad
editorial –publicada en agosto del presente año bajo el sello Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–
busca explicar cómo cada click, cada llamada telefónica, cada compra
con tarjeta bancaria, cada correo electrónico enviado, va construyendo
el perfil de cada uno de nosotros que después alimentará infinidad de
bases de datos.
Este autor, que ha escrito por más de dos décadas para la revista de negocios BusinessWeek,
resalta la importancia de “los Numerati”, un selecto grupo de
profesionales que hacen las veces de “Gran Hermano”. Son matemáticos,
ingenieros, programadores que cuentan con “las herramientas y las
habilidades que pueden ser utilizadas para descifrar nuestro
movimientos, deseos, dolencias, hábitos de compra y, con esto, predecir
nuestro comportamiento”. Pero aunque parezca ciencia ficción, Baker no
habla del futuro, sino de un presente en pleno desarrollo.
Desde hace algunos años, en compañías como IBM se ha tratado de
recopilar toda la información de los empleados y con ella crear modelos
matemáticos, que al tener una alta capacidad predictiva del
comportamiento de los mismos, pueda servir para mejorar la
productividad y automatizar la administración. Con estos modelos las
empresas podrían saber en qué puesto se desempeñará mejor cada
empleado, cómo formar los grupos de trabajo más compatibles, qué tan
rentable es cada trabajador, cuál es la mejor manera de incentivarlos,
y cómo establecer calendarios y programas de productividad, entre
muchas otras cosas. Pero no sólo servirá para entender a los
trabajadores. Este gran cúmulo de datos, puede traducirse en modelos
matemáticos que nos expliquen como consumidores, votantes,
ciber-ciudadanos, pacientes, amantes y hasta posibles terroristas.
Este libro, del que todavía no hay traducción al castellano y que es
prácticamente imposible conseguirlo en nuestro país, es una lectura
necesaria para los amantes de las nuevas tecnologías y de todas
aquellas personas interesadas en explorar la infinidad de posibilidades
que nos ofrece el mundo digital.
The New Scientist
will send a shiver down your spine and leave you glancing over your
shoulder. But it is no ghost story. You really are being watched.
Journalist Stephen Baker
takes us to meet the spooks who are watching us, a group he calls the
Numerati. They are a growing band of mathematicians and computer
scientists tasked with processing the flood of electronic traces we
leave behind, to reveal and ultimately influence the way we shop, vote
or even fall in love.
the mathematicians explain to Baker what they are doing and how, it
becomes clear that their subjects have little choice about
participating in what Baker calls "the mathematical modelling of
humanity". As a worker, shopper, voter or blogger, your data is being
collected and crunched. Every click of your mouse is fodder for the
Numerati don't simply want to know what we are doing - they want to
wrest control of our behaviour. A shopper who often uses shopping
discount coupons, for instance, might find their supply cut off or find
themselves targeted by adverts exploiting their known weakness for
Belgian chocolates. Voters might receive phone calls calculated to
appeal to someone with their particular educational background, area
code, children's ages and income. Those who use dating websites will
find that the Numerati have chosen their potential mates.
examples and others make a compelling case that as more of our
information populates databases, and as the mathematics used to mine
them grows increasingly sophisticated, the Numerati will become a
powerful force. At the moment, though, these methods still have their
share of flaws.
its hunt for covert enemies, Baker says, the US government leans
heavily on a mathematical crutch to compensate for shortfalls in human
skills - such as fluency in Arabic or front-line intelligence. For now,
this crutch is not a very solid support, IBM's chief scientist tells
Baker, explaining that today's data mining techniques are still not
producing the goods. He ought to know, having designed software to
track known and future crooks in Las Vegas casinos, which, after 9/11,
was enlisted by the CIA for hunting terrorists.
techniques are, nevertheless, inexorably eroding our privacy, something
that will surely grow more concerning if, as Baker suggests, they come
to dominate commerce, policing, healthcare and more.
he seems unwilling to devote much space to how we might cope with this
Orwellian future. We never find out how the march of the Numerati might
be regulated, or how individuals might regain control of their own
data. Given widespread worries over government phone tapping in the US
and compulsory ID cards in the UK, some suggestions would have been
welcome. If the Numerati are going to get your number and everyone
else's, let's keep an eye on theirs.
Tom Simonite is technology editor for NewScientist.com
The Daily Telegraph
Data-surfing data serfs
-- Simon Ings recommends three books that show how to harness the power of numbers...
Late in the day, and carrying little by way
of new information, Stephen Baker's The Numerati is none the less a
strikingly well-argued and positive account of a wired, watched world
in which private lives are no longer an option.
the near future Baker describes, you will pay a company called
SpareMetheDetails.com to provide you with an exercise regime to address
all those medical complaints and physical shortcomings you'd rather not
know about; your online dating agency will boot you off the website
because your ex-wife is emailing lies about you; and the supermarket,
knowing you're disloyal (you chase bargains wherever you find them)
will drive you away with absurd and inappropriate offers.
digitising our every commercial exchange, and by inviting us to
digitise more and more of our social dealings, the "Numerati" - the
mathematician wizards who set the policies of institutions, insurers,
retailers and governments - are increasingly able to model how each of
us behaves in any given situation. In some respects, they already know
us better than we know ourselves. The digital revolution that promised
to bring tailored goods and services to my door will soon only give me
what they think I deserve.
Getting us to face
that future with confidence is Baker's task. For a start, he says, we
are not being turned into numbers. "Turning us into simple numbers was
what happened in the industrial age. That was yesterday's story." Our
mathematically parsed lives (from our daily spending habits to our
voting patterns) reveal us as complex entities that bloody-mindedly
refuse to behave like components. In the control rooms of commerce and
the state mathematics brings us to life. Whatever future our
mathematical avatars are ushering in, it will not be an assembly-line
Baker's reassurances continue: "The
ideal industries for the Numerati are those in which they can goof up
regularly and still top the status quo." Digitising people en masse is
hard; digitising individuals (attempting, for example, to track
terrorist cells through the digital ether) is fraught beyond all
imagining. Though the book is subtitled "How They'll Get My Number and
Yours", the chances are that they won't. Not, anyway, if Jeff Jonas has
his way. Jonas, who sold his relationship trawler to the CIA, is now a
privacy advocate, frantically re-engineering his work to protect
individual rights. If Jonas's story is typical, there is money and
kudos to be had from reining in and humanising the future Baker
Baker tracks down and talks to Jonas
and many other key players in this digitised realm. Most of his
subjects are not mathematicians. They come from the humanities. They
studied history. They dropped out and messed around for years before
stumbling on their Big Idea. Mathematics is simply their lingua franca.
The future is wildly interdisciplinary: David Heckerman, a researcher
at Microsoft, applies spam-detecting algorithms to HIV, work that could
one day lead to an Aids vaccine.
What kind of
world are the Numerati making for the rest of us? If decisions that
affect us are going to be based on the real-time mathematical modelling
of people then we had better make sure that those models reflect
reality, and not some prejudiced take on it. Over the next few years,
therefore, we can expect to find ourselves arguing ever-more
desperately with the "computer says no" apparatchiks of the information
economy. "At work," Baker warns, "perhaps more than anywhere else, we
are in danger of becoming data serfs - slaves to the information we
produce." To win our arguments - and save our selves - we will have to
be able to explain exactly why "their" models of us are wrong. It's an
onerous obligation, to be sure, but one "that will lead many of us to
give more thought to who we are".
It would do us
no harm, either, to know more about the maths underpinning those models
- and it would be hard to imagine an easier, friendlier, more
entertaining introduction than John Barrow's 100 Essential Things You
Didn't Know You Didn't Know. In his introduction, Professor Barrow
bends over backwards to understate his book's value. Certainly, it's a
title you are supposed to dip into. Most of Barrow's stories describe
mathematical conundrums. There are biographical pieces, and some
historical oddities. My favourite is the 1918 Soundex phonetic system,
invented to deal with spelling errors in censuses. There are even belly
laughs - as when a change in the points system saw the football teams
of Grenada and Barbados attacking their own goals in the 1994 Shell
I suspect the craft behind this
fun book will only really come to light as we attempt to tell Barrow's
stories to our friends. Suddenly, we will realise how much effort
Barrow has expended in explaining difficult things simply.
Stewart, unlike Barrow, believes in the sturdiness of his Cabinet of
Mathematical Curiosities, and advises puzzle buffs to work through his
book in order. His confidence in his handiwork is not misplaced, and
his anthology is more structured than Barrow's. Stewart began
collecting mathematical trivia when he was a schoolboy. The child is
clearly the father of the man in this case, and the book's goofy and
unabashed enthusiasm will charm any interested teenager. That said,
Stewart does not write nearly as well as Barrow. At his very worst, he
comes across as someone you should avoid at parties, stuffing his
over-elaborate conundrums with weak jokes and execrable puns. His book
is more of a collection of puzzles than the tour of wonders his title
implies. While providing a great deal of mathematical entertainment, he
can't help but remind us that mathematical ability, like musical
ability, is not character forming. It is not urbane. It is not
Stewart communicates very well over
the divide that separates the Two Cultures. Barrow, on the other hand,
makes you forget the divide is there.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
A brave new world of snoopy software
Reviewed by John Allen Paulos
--Big Brother in a Chip
might be an alternative title for Stephen Baker's book The Numerati
With gee-whiz enthusiasm, the BusinessWeek columnist tells a number of
fascinating stories about ever-cheaper, ever-more-powerful computer
chips and the tools and techniques they make possible, tools and
techniques that will increasingly and dramatically affect nearly every
area of our lives.
The bulk of the book is devoted to examples.
A particularly nice one concerns the chips and new software that will
monitor our buying habits in supermarkets via the use of store cards
and smart carts. These will note what we buy and infer from our
purchases whether we're on a budget (relatively constant expenditures),
following a diet (low-fat foods) or have fallen off one (high-fat ice
The cart will also remind us if it finds we've
forgotten something, and determine how brand-loyal and price-sensitive
we are. It will discover our buying personalities and likely
demographic characteristics, track our path through the store, and
suggest changes in layout to stimulate sales of high-profit items.
Through interviews with scientists at various software companies
ranging from giants like Yahoo and Google to a number of smaller
boutique firms, Baker attempts to humanize the story of those he terms
the "numerati." They are the mathematicians, computer scientists and
others who are every day devising better software models of us as
consumers, workers, patients, lovers, voters and even terrorists.
Despite its topic, the book contains no mathematics, although Baker
does periodically hint at notions from statistics, operations research,
and graph and network theory that make the new software possible.
Interestingly, a few numerati are even analyzing blogs, because
bloggers provide unfiltered, raw, generally honest reactions to
products (from diarrhea medicines to golf clubs) that
information-hungry companies want. Countless blogs are scanned for
mention of these products (or issues), and the computer is taught to
determine the sex, approximate age, and other demographic
characteristics of the bloggers. The information obtained helps
companies discern tastes and target ads (much as Google and Amazon are
On the drawing boards, too, are new medical
software programs and devices that churn through volumes of information
to monitor patients' health, especially that of older people. One
example is a floor sensor that can detect changes in the speed and
symmetry of Grandpa's gait, the frequency of his visits to the
refrigerator or bathroom, and other characteristics. The sensor then
determines whether he's especially unsteady in the morning (maybe too
many meds the night before), or whether he's on the verge of a stroke,
as well as the probability of a host of other conditions.
Phone software can detect if the time it takes Grandpa to recognize
loved ones' voices has grown a fraction of a second longer and draw
tentative conclusions and an invitation for specific tests. This would
be especially helpful with Parkinson's disease, which often signals
itself by changes in voice and gait as much as a decade before it's
diagnosed by doctors.
The chapter on terrorism tells of the
torrent of data available from the FBI, CIA, and publicly available
databases, as well as monitored phone calls (some legally, many not),
Web site visits, transportation records, tax filings, ubiquitous
cameras, and who knows what else? This informational tsunami rushes
past the National Security Agency's numerati, who attempt to pan
nuggets out of the torrent.
Baker duly notes the danger of
false positives in this endeavor. With ever more pieces of information
and ever more superficially suspicious interconnections among them, the
vast majority of the people picked out will likely be innocent. Note
the million or so names on the airline watch list - and appreciate the
continuing importance of habeas corpus.
Since mathematics is
a somewhat imperialistic discipline, the same software tools and
data-mining techniques useful in one domain apply in many other
disparate realms as well. The ideas employed to find terrorists'
messages and their senders are also used to find e-mail spam and its
origins, to find dangerous molecules in our blood, to find suitable
fits between workers and jobs, or to find potentially compatible mates.
The connection among these various tasks is often nominal, consisting
in no more than the fact that they all use similar mathematical tools.
Despite the slightly sinister sound to the title word numerati,
Baker writes near the end of the book that these folks and their
mathematical tricks will, for the most part, make our lives easier
(unless we're trying to hide our hangover from the snooping floor). Far
from being controlling, they will allow us to be more fully who we
choose to be. Just as we all drive cars without understanding what a
carburetor does, we'll all use these software tools without
understanding how dynamic optimization works.
Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the
author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the
Newspaper," as well as "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the
Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on
ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.
The Guardian (UK)
|"Forget astrology and the
stars; your future is encoded within the trail of numbers that you leave behind
They've got us all figured out
Every time you do a web search, or use a loyalty card, one of the 'numerati' does the maths on you, writes Marcus du Sautoy
Can you predict what the
next numbers will be in each of these strings of
The first sequence has a
clear rhythm to it. The second is a little more tricky, but look closely and you
might notice that it uses the previous numbers in the string to build the next
one. This is the Fibonacci sequence, nature's favourite set of numbers and the
first code to be cracked in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The third sequence is
much trickier. At first it looks random but if you come at it armed with the
right knowledge you might recognise that it is part of the decimal expansion of
pi, starting at the 44th decimal place. Once you know this you have total
control over the sequence and can predict every twist as it speeds off to
Mathematics is all about
spotting patterns, finding the underlying logic in the seemingly random and
chaotic world around us; and using this information to predict future behaviour.
Traditionally maths has been used to make predictions about inanimate objects,
like the orbit of planets or the weather. But as Stephen Baker explains in The Numerati, mathematicians are
increasingly turning their attention to human behaviour. What if those strings
of numbers are records of the things you've bought, places you've travelled to,
websites you've visited, parties you've voted for? Find the pattern in the
numbers and mathematicians will be able to predict - with surprising accuracy -
what your next move will be. The 'numerati' is the name Baker gives to the group
of latterday fortune-tellers whose job it is to decode our behaviour. His book
explores the lives of such people and attempts to analyse how powerful they have
Until recently, the abstract
language of mathematics seemed to have no relevance to the murky worlds of
consumer trends, political preferences and dating. The change that has made the
rise of the numerati possible is digitisation. All of us today leave an
extensive trail of numbers wherever we go. Almost everything we do - from
visiting a website to texting a friend - is translated into ones and zeros,
which are stored somewhere and available to those who know how to access them.
For example, every time we enter a search into Google, a simple code called ASCI
translates each letter we type into a string of 0s and 1s, which are sent out
across the internet.
When we unload our shopping
trolleys at the checkout, the bar codes of our purchases are stored by our
loyalty cards, providing a record of our eating habits. When we walk down the
road, our movements are likely to be tracked by CCTV, converted into digital
code and stored on computer mainframes. Even our moods and thoughts get
translated into zeros and ones by the technology we love and rely on, as
thousands of us pour our states of minds on to blogs. Forget astrology and the
stars; your future is encoded within the trail of numbers that you leave behind
For those with the ability
to interpret it, this data trail is a goldmine. Advertisers and politicians have
long dreamed of being able to target their messages - or products - at
individuals on the basis of highly detailed information about them. Now this
dream is becoming reality. By analysing the geometry of our mathematical
pathways, mathematicians can cluster people with shared interests and passions,
creating ever smaller, more specific groups to
For example, Baker talks to
one of the numerati, Dave Morgan of AOL, who picked up a correlation between
people visiting the Alamo Rent A Car website and surfing romantic movie sites.
It isn't an obvious match; only in retrospect could it be traced to an escapist
tendency. But once the pattern was identified, advertisers could find all sorts
of clever ways to exploit it - for example, by bombarding this particular group
with offers for weekend breaks in country hotels.
Baker argues that the
numerati have become incredibly powerful in a range of fields, from the
workplace to the voting booth, from health care to counter-terrorism. He even
puts the maths to the test to see if a dating agency can pair him with his wife;
when he eventually unchecks the box requesting someone several decades too
young, Mrs Baker pops up top of the list. There is no denying that the digital
revolution has opened up exciting new territory for mathematicians. The numerati
are no fantasy; they exist. Baker is telling us about a phenomenon that is
important and often overlooked. That makes his book urgent and
But there are also
significant flaws. Baker's slick journalistic style grates after a while -
especially when we are forced to hear about him supping yet another coffee in a
cafe as he waits for his next interviewee. And maybe it's because I'm a maths
nerd, but I hoped for more detail about the maths involved. Baker's mathematical
descriptions are often superficial, and indeed he seems to regard the maths as
little more than magic. His numerati come across as sorcerers armed with
mysterious, secret knowledge, not as scientists with tools that can be
rationally analysed. This has the effect of making them seem more sinister than
The book becomes more
interesting when Baker turns his attention to the political implications of the
numerati's activities. There are clear issues of civil liberties at stake, as
well as of consent. Most of us have no idea how much of our lives are being
tracked. If we did, we would probably be horrified. At the same time, it is hard
to deny that the numerati do much that is good. Baker's analysis is pretty
balanced, and he spells out why we should be grateful to the numerati, as well
as concerned in some areas. Increasingly, for example, the numerati use their
skills to monitor health care; homes for the elderly are being wired with
technology that can record fluctuations in weight or a decrease in mobility,
triggering a hasty visit from a doctor. If you're joining a dating agency, you
want to exploit the skills of mathematicians to find the perfect partner. And,
as Baker points out in his chapter on the use of the numerati by pollsters,
anything that helps politicians target individuals on issues that they care
about, rather than simply trotting out bland platitudes, is a good
There is a tendency within
our society to view science with suspicion, whether it is stories of nano-robots
infiltrating our body and messing with our DNA, black holes appearing in the
Large Hadron Collider in Cern that will swallow up the universe, or genetically
modified crops sweeping the world and destroying all in their path. All
scientific progress involves steps into the unknown, and that inevitably entails
risk. That is why books like this are valuable. Once you know about the science
and its implications, you are in a much better position to distinguish sinister
developments from mere hype.
So when it comes to Baker's
numerati, all of us have a responsibility to understand how much companies and
government can or cannot use or abuse the maths. This book won't make you an
expert on how the mathematicians do their tricks, but it will make you more
aware of the the implications. Read it and you'll have a much better idea of who
has got your number.
Marcus du Sautoy is the new
Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the
Oxford and author of Finding Moonshine
The Times (of London)
It's written in a breezy journalistic style and it
avoids sensationalism even when this must have been tempting.
November 21, 2008
The Princeton Companion to Mathematics and The Numerati: How They'll Get My Number and Yours
The Times review by Ian Stewart
The Princeton Companion to Mathematics edited by Timothy Gowers et al
Princeton, £60; 1,008pp Buy
The Numerati: How They'll Get My Number and Yours by Stephen Baker
Jonathan Cape, £17.99; 272pp Buy
The Numerati is short, has no formulas, and no overt mathematical concepts
beyond ordinary numbers. It's written in a breezy journalistic style and it
avoids sensationalism even when this must have been tempting. It is about
the numerical data that supermarkets, banks and internet service providers
collect and how they use it - or hope to use it. The numerati have got your
number. They've been collecting data for years but until recently had no
idea what to do with it.
Your supermarket loyalty card is not free. You pay for it by allowing the
supermarket to collect information about your purchases. They know that you
always buy a particular brand of razor. Occasionally you pick up a chocolate
bar at the checkout. They know how frequently you do this, what your total
spend is. So far they've used this data in limited ways. But soon the
numerati will be making more effective use of your personal data to persuade
you to buy stuff that you wouldn't otherwise have bought. “You like Cherry
Coke. How much would Pepsi have to slash the price of its Wild Cherry Cola
to entice you to switch?” The hold over you will be even greater when they
can track your shopping cart as you pass through the store, link that to
your loy-alty card and flash messages on a screen pointing out bargains that
they think will appeal to you. And this kind of thing will also happen in
your relations with your employer, your vote, your doctor, even your love
Is this mathematics? Or is it just numbers? The data may be numbers, but what
you do with it involves high-powered maths. Vast amounts of mathematics lurk
just under the surface of our lives, making everything possible.
Some of these developments are good, some bad - loss of privacy, even a police
state. Another key question, strangely missing from the book, is: will we
let these things happen? As the numerati build ever more effective weapons
to control our lives, we may decide not to play their games. For every
advertisement on the web there is a free add-on to block it. And ultimately,
we can spend only what we earn. The numerati may encourage us to spend it on
them, rather than on the opposition, but this arms race has a cost. Like air
miles, it could become self-defeating - expensive to operate and of little
value once everyone is doing it.
WITHOUT mathematics our world would be very different - no internet, no mobile
phones, no satellite navigation, no passenger aircraft, no CDs, no digital
cameras, no MRI scanners. Yet this almost total reliance of our society on
mathematics is largely unknown and unappreciated. There are many ways to
drag mathematics out of the wings and into the limelight, and these two
books follow very different strategies.
The Princeton Companion to Mathematics contains contributions by about 100 of
the world's leading mathematicians, and its editor, Timothy Gowers, is a
winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics. It
concentrates on pure mathematics, done for its own sake without any specific
application in mind. Its coverage is broad, but it is not an encyclopaedia.
The core is a section on the different branches of mathematics. At school we
encounter a few basic concepts in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus,
probability and not much else. The professional community recognises about
100 major branches of mathematics, with names such as “algebraic topology”
and “stochastic processes”. They represent the hidden world of frontier
research, and they are as unlike school mathematics as composing a symphony
differs from playing scales on a piano.
It is almost impossible to convey much about these frontier activities without
employing technical terms, formulas and abstract concepts. The Companion
makes a heroic attempt to keep these to a minimum, but the minimum is fairly
big. A mathematics undergraduate would feel comfortable with this part of
the book, but a school student would struggle.
Most of the rest of the book is accessible to anyone with an interest in
mathematics and some basic high school background. There are biographies of
mathematicians and a discussion of the origins of modern mathematics. There
are essays on applications of mathematics to areas such as chemistry,
biology, traffic flow, transmission of digital information, money, medicine,
music and art.
The Companion is an ambitious attempt to do something valuable, and it is not
the fault of contributors or editor that it is impossible to realise this
ambition completely. The book conveys the breadth, depth and diversity of
mathematics. It is impressive and well written, and it's good value for
The Irish Times
Unlike the shadowy cultists who populate Brown's
fiction, however, the Numerati are all too real, and they're busy calculating
how to make you buy more stuff.
18, 2008 Tuesday
Numerati - they sound
pretty sinister?They are
mathematical Machiavellis, using their vast knowledge of numbers to manipulate
ordinary people and bend human behaviour to their
Is this the plot of a new Dan Brown
No, but it is the premise of
a sensational new book by business journalist
Stephen Baker. Unlike the shadowy cultists who populate Brown's
fiction, however, the Numerati are all too real, and they're busy calculating
how to make you buy more stuff.
How do they do that?
Wherever we go, and whatever
we do, we leave an easy-to-follow electronic trail. Every time we log on to the
internet, send an e-mail, pay a bill by credit card or send a text from our
phone, we reveal something about ourselves, our lifestyles and our shopping
habits. The Numerati are the ones smart enough to pull all that disparate data
together and create a profile of each individual consumer. They pass this
knowledge to the marketing men who will then tailor an advertisement or
marketing campaign and aim it specifically at you.
That's creepy - I feel like I'm being
You are. Everything you do,
from buying a ticket on the Dart to buying tickets for the hot new rock gig, can
be tracked, analysed and collated, and fed into a database. But all this info
would be useless without the unique skills of the Numerati, who are able to and
make marketing sense out of all that data.
So, who are these geeks that are trying
to rule the world?
You'll find them ferreting
away at their algorithms in such major companies as Google, IBM, Intel and any
other organisation that deals in large quantities of data. And you'll also
detect them in the world of security, using the data to try and counter crime
They can do all this just by crunching a
Never underestimate the
power of mathematics. According to Baker, all human activity can be broken down
into a series of ones and zeros, which can then be turned into mathematical
models that predict our behaviour as shoppers, workers, potential terrorists and
even lovers. Once our lives, loves and interests are laid bare, the marketing
men can make a killing.
But are we really that easy to
manipulate? We're not automatons, you know.
In the old days of the
industrial revolution, time-and-motion experts would go into factories with
their stopwatches and analyse workers' daily habits. These days, however, there
are a million more ways to get information about our lives. We can be identified
by birth date, postcode and our computer's ISP number, and tracked via CCTV,
credit-card usage and our car number plate. It won't be too long before floor
sensors can tell which way we distribute our weight when we stand. All this
information is grist to the marketing mill, and allows advertisers and marketing
people to home in on their prime target - you.
Omigod. Now I feel like Jason Bourne,
with faceless people out to get me. How can I evade capture?
You can do small things such
as binning your loyalty cards, which tell the Numerati where you like to shop.
Or you can switch to cash when you buy your Prada and Louis Vuitton. But unless
you become a hermit, eating nuts and berries and dressing in old potato sacks,
you're not going to escape the Numerati. If you're out there on the high street,
they'll find you - and sell you something.
It's like they're in my
It won't be long before the
Numerati really do get inside your head. Neuromarketing uses
electro-encephalography to find out what we're thinking when we buy.
Neuromarketers have discovered, for instance, that shopping floods the brain
with happy hormones.
home: "I couldn't help myself - it was like an
invisible force guiding me straight to the Gucci
work:"Okay, people, this
kid buys a Milky Bar every day - how do we get him to switch to Curly
The Financial Times
The Numerati: How They’ll Get My Number and Yours
By Stephen Baker
Jonathan Cape £17.99 256 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.39
know a guy – let’s call him a cycling anarchist – who lives life in
permanent rebellion against the corporate world. He campaigns against
all the evils of consumer society. He would not set foot in a
supermarket. But I have a new mission for him: to go behind enemy lines
– as a barnacle.
The boffins who use algorithms and geometry to
analyse our consumer habits have identified the barnacle as the bane of
retailers. A barnacle is someone who buys only discounted goods –
hitching a free ride like a mollusc clinging to the side of a ship, as
author Stephen Baker describes it in The Numerati. They cost
retailers money. So a cycling anarchist could erode the profits of
Tesco or Wal-Mart by filling his basket with their loss-leaders and
two-for-ones. Imagine if he enlisted the help of others.
But it won’t be one-way traffic against the numerati – the
ranks of mathematicians chopping up our world into a series of numbers
to manage human behaviour. Retailers are hitting back against barnacles
by excluding them from mailing lists and, online, by bombarding them
with ads and diverting them to slow servers. Retailers are becoming
experts at converting customers into “true friends” who fall for
seductive inducements to buy (high-margin) treats.
You don’t have
to be a cycling anarchist to be concerned about what Baker calls the
“mathematical modelling of humanity”. Most of us are at least faintly
uneasy about the ubiquity of data compiled about our lives. We should
be. The Numerati shows us just how far this process has already gone, how much further it has to go – and how little we can do to avoid it.
a BusinessWeek writer, goes about his task with a jaunty enthusiasm. He
is careful to point out that he himself is a liberal arts graduate, as
if to reassure us that he won’t get bogged down in the complex
mathematical and computing science that the numerati thrive on – and he
doesn’t. He includes no algebra and no geometrical diagrams. There are
lots of descriptions of the numerati that emphasise their ordinariness
– they sport goatees, wear rugby shirts and jeans and munch Chinese
takeaways. They work for IBM, Intel, Accenture and university research
Actually, they are pretty much a class apart. The ones we
meet in the book are based in the US, but they are a cosmopolitan lot
from across Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe as well as the US
itself. Their otherness is enhanced precisely because most of us have
only a vague understanding of how they do what they do. They are busy
compiling and interpreting data about almost every aspect of our lives
– data we so carelessly litter these days – with the intention not just
of predicting but of influencing how we behave.
through how the numerati are breaking us down and classifying us as
workers, shoppers, voters, terrorists, patients and more. They are not
working alone. Their data are fodder for marketers, politicians,
intelligence analysts and doctors, not to mention governments. It is
fascinating stuff. Did you know that a political consultancy in the US,
using consumer data, has tagged 175m people into 10 “tribes” that
define their political leaning? The method is 75 per cent accurate in
identifying swing voters, so a political party has a three in four
chance of success in targeting the audience needed for victory – far
more efficient than broadcast ads or mailshots.
There are many
potential benefits for the individual in this kind of data analysis,
not least in enhanced medical monitoring and diagnostics. But a method
that is 75 per cent accurate means a 25 per cent rate of failure. That
might be acceptable when the only consequence is a door slammed in the
face of a political canvasser. But what if more is at stake? The fact
is, as Baker reluctantly concedes, a range of worrying issues is raised
by the march of the numerati, from questions of privacy to potential
injustice and worse, largely because they don’t seem to be much
bothered by the concept of truth. “The key (for the numerati) is to
forget about the truth – or at least put it to one side,” he writes.
“The kind of statistical analysis we’re discussing here … is by its
nature approximate. It’s based on probability.”
It is not just my
friend the cycling anarchist who should be worried. We all need to be
concerned about what happens when the geeks make a mistake. The most
disappointing omission from this book is the almost complete lack of
discussion about how the numerati of the financial world got it so
horribly wrong. We had better hope that their colleagues in
intelligence and other realms do a better job of crunching our numbers.
Hugh Carnegy is the FT’s executive editor
The Sunday Times (UK)
Paranoia sells. This is because it is always justified. They are out to get
you. Only this time they don't have bombs, guns and knives but far more
dangerous weapons - algorithms and fMRI machines. Algorithms are
mathematical processes that will break you down to a quivering mass of 0s
and 1s; fMRI machines are brain scanners that will reduce you to your grey
matter, a dumb flow of electrons and glucose. The marketing men have got
hold of these things and they're going to use them to extract first your
freedom and then your soul. But the good news is that you probably won't
mind because you'll be getting all this really cool stuff.
Google is an algorithm, one that provides an exact and efficient way of
searching the internet and ordering the results. This may seem like a small
thing, but it points to the way the chaos of the contemporary can be
controlled by numbers. The hierarchies generated by this algorithm now rule
The marketing power of numbers is the subject of Stephen Baker's book. The
Numerati are the mathematicians who are finding ways to sell things to you
and you alone. Old ways of marketing are no longer effective. We're wise to
their ways and they are phenomenally inefficient - vast sums of money are
spent on reaching millions of people, only a tiny percentage of whom are
likely to be interested in your product.
Numbers can fix this. But first the numerati and their computers have to know
who you are. This is easy. Almost anybody in the world can be identified by
sex, birth date and post code. Furthermore, you are dripping algorithms -
your phone, your computer, your credit, your car number plate, your face (on
CCTV) are all being turned, minute by minute, into the language of 0s and 1s
that computers can understand. Worst of all are loyalty cards, whose only
function is to imprison you in your habits and impulses.
Baker knows his stuff and he knows his subjects - the book is organised around
a series of interviews with the numerati, alarmingly clever people at IBM,
Intel, Accenture and even America's National Security Agency (they chase
terrorists with numbers). And he gives us plenty of scary/weird information
about how they are chasing us. They do it by fitting us into categories - if
you are the sort of person who buys product A, then you will be interested
in ads or offers about product B. So, when you surf the net, you will
increasingly be bombarded with messages about the joys of B. This can
produce some startling correlations. People in America who liked romantic
films, for example, were also drawn to ads for Alamo car rentals. Nobody
knew why until, one day, they realised that romantic types were drawn to
weekends away. This is how the numbers nail you.
You can get revenge by being a “barnacle shopper” - going from shop to shop
buying special offers and using coupons clipped from the tabloids. The
companies hate you for this because you cost them money; in fact, they want
to “fire” you. They're already doing this on the internet by bombarding you
with ads in which you're not interested and on porn sites - I'm not kidding
- by shunting you to the slowest server. They're only nice to people willing
to pay top dollar.
But this is relatively tame stuff compared to “neuromarketing”, the subject of
Martin Lindstrom's book. Using fMRI machines and advanced
electroencephalography (basically, the measurement of electrical activity in
your head), marketers can watch what happens inside our brains. Lindstrom (a
“brand guru”) has run a research programme in which he tested various
brands' marketing strategies while watching people's brains. This is, he
says, “a historic meeting between science and marketing”.
It produces some startling results. Warnings on cigarette packets, for
example, don't work. They light up the same parts of the brain as the desire
to smoke. Also people don't necessarily say what they mean. Some subjects
said they didn't like a television show, but the level of involvement shown
by the scans indicated they did. This renders lots of old market-research
methods - focus groups, for example - redundant.
But the big thing demonstrated by the science is that shopping is a profoundly
intoxicating experience. It floods the brain with dopamine, the hormone
involved in motivation and reward. Very strong brands - Lindstrom mentions
iPod, Harley-Davidson and Ferrari - light up the brain in the same patterns
seen in nuns who were shown religious imagery. It's often said that shopping
is a kind of religion. Here, apparently, is the hard evidence.
Lindstrom is good at exposing our vulnerabilities. He notes, for example, the
festishisation of the shopping experience. The internet is full of
“unboxing” images - see, for example, unboxing.gearlive.com, a site that
provides you with the joy of taking a product out of its box without the
financial stress of actual purchase. He also shows the way our reason is
subverted by the exploitation of “somatic markers”, patterns of association.
A good somatic marker tells you not to stick your hand in a flame; a bad one
tells you to buy an Audi because it is Vorsprung durch Technik, even though
it is no better than any number of other often cheaper cars.
But, in the end, both books are unsettling. Partly because they are badly
written. Baker, especially,has a nasty habit of throwing in empty
descriptions - “his neatly trimmed goatee hovering over my fried fish” was
one slice of colour writing I could have done without. More important, Baker
and Lindstrom are both too thrilled by these technologies to ask serious
questions about their applications. In essence, the numerati and the
neuromarketers are in the business of reducing and controlling human
impulses with ever-more intimate and invasive strategies. In doing so, they
elevate shopping - not an activity that enhances the spiritual stock of
humanity - to the level of a world-defining mythology. So be paranoid, be
very paranoid, use cash when you can, lie about your feelings to anybody
with a clipboard and, above all, junk your loyalty cards
The New York Times
November 2, 2008
They’ve Got Your Number
Maybe you’re the kind of
person who doesn’t believe that the kind of person you are can be
deduced by an algorithm and expressed through shorthand categorizations
like “urban youth” or “hearth keeper.” Maybe I’d agree with you, and
maybe we’re right. But the kind of people — “crack mathematicians,
computer scientists and engineers” — whom Stephen Baker writes about in
“The Numerati” clearly see things differently. In fact, they probably
regard such skepticism as more fodder for the math-driven identity
formulas they’ve created to satisfy the consumer-product companies and
politicians who hire them.
Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, categorizes the categorizers into
seven chapters: some number crunchers seek to decode us as shoppers,
others as voters or patients or even potential terrorists. In all
cases, the idea is to gather data, use computers to compile and
interpret it, and draw conclusions about how we will behave — or how we
might be persuaded to behave. “We turn you into math,” one of his
subjects declares. Sometimes the data comes from firms that collect it
from public records or subscription lists, or that conduct exhaustive
attitudinal surveys, concluding on the basis of whether you own cats or
subscribe to gourmet magazines which political “tribe” you belong to,
and thus how a campaign should approach you (or not). But the most
interesting information comes from us, particularly by way of our
online activities. Baker’s savants monitor our collective (if
anonymous) Web surfing patterns for “behavioral clues” that, for
example, help advertisers decide when to hit us with what pitch.
You probably already have a sense that this sort of thing is going
on, but Baker uncovers some surprising details. A chapter on efforts to
convert the information disclosed by bloggers and users of social
networks is among the most interesting. Baker offers an anecdote about
a firm called Umbria helping a cellphone company that’s decided to
charge more for Bluetooth data connections, a move that “sent bloggers
into a fury.” Umbria, which studies bloggers and divides them into
tribes, concluded that all the spleen-venting was coming from the
“power users,” whereas “the fashionistas, the music lovers, the
cheapskates” did not care. “With this intelligence,” Baker writes, the
company could placate the power users by offering them “free” service
(while raising the prices on headsets) and “continue charging everyone
else.” He goes on to describe Umbria’s efforts to teach its computers
to interpret blogs and draw conclusions from different phrases, font
choices, background colors and even emoticons.
On one level, this is just the low comedy of the profit motive: our
finest techno-wizards and their beautiful machines wrestling with the
meaning of “:)” so that some cellphone company can micro-target its fee
increases. But Baker also, in effect, offers a counternarrative to the
usual story about the digital revolution. While millions of ordinary
citizens have been empowered to express their individuality with a
panoply of new tools, a smaller number of people have been working out
the most efficient ways to convert those individuals into numbers on a
We used to go about our business and let marketers try to catch up
with us. “Today,” he writes, “we spy on ourselves and send electronic
updates minute by minute.”
The most cautionary chapter concerns information-age tools that hunt
for terrorists and other bad guys, which risk being “repurposed” in
dangerous ways. The most optimistic one deals with data mining and
health care, predicting a time when “networked gadgets” will monitor
our weight, our physical activity and even our bathroom time to help us
live “healthier, happier and longer lives.” Both chapters — all the
chapters, really — involve a lot of speculation (many sentences begin
“Let’s say . . .” or “Imagine . . .”). By and large, Baker seems to
accept much of what the new “counting elite” say they can do now or
will be able to do someday, but sometimes their claims and Baker’s
credulity are all the reader has to go on. At one point, a data
cruncher who is devising ways to improve office-worker efficiency says
the underlying stochastic calculus isn’t too hard to understand, starts
to explain a formula . . . and then he stops, and Baker lets it drop.
Presumably he was simply more interested in keeping up his short book’s
crisp pace, but “The Numerati” could have used a few more specific and
nonhypothetical examples, like that Bluetooth anecdote. Baker makes
only passing mention of the application of extensive mathematical
modeling that the typical reader is most likely to be familiar with:
the Wall Street version, which has proved, shall we say, fallible.
Still, Baker may be right in saying the mathematicians and computer
scientists he writes about are or soon will be “in a position to rule
the information of our lives.” Maybe you don’t believe in the version
of you that some guy is coaxing out of a computer in the nondescript
offices of a company you’ve never heard of. But that’s not what
matters. What matters is whether that guy, and his clients, believe in
Rob Walker writes
the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is
“Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.”
The Internet Review of Books
What the number crunchers mean to us
By Stephen Baker
256 pp. Houghton Mifflin $26
Reviewed by Marci Andrews
Stephen Baker’s Numerati is a patchwork quilt of
biographies of the people among us who are busily bridging the gap
between reality and science fiction. Far from a collection of simple
vignettes, Numerati shows how the work of these brilliant men and women will likely affect the rest of us.
What is a “Numerati,” you ask? “Numerati” is a term Baker has coined
to refer to the people who are using the sea of data spawned by the
Information Age for their research into just about every aspect of
American life. These brilliant scholars are using the power of
mathematics, computing, and a mind-boggling array of cross-pollinated
sciences in their analyses. The results are already both startling and
fascinating—and they’re just getting warmed up.
Each chapter of the book is rife with colorful stories about
individual Numerati, how their work began, what they are researching
now, and how they might affect the world around us in the
not-so-distant future. In the “Worker” chapter, for example, Baker
sounds a wake-up call for office workers around the globe. According to
Baker, thanks to the Numerati, the inhabitants of offices will be
analyzed as carefully as any baseball player. Statistics on expertise,
communication skills, productivity—you name it—will be available on
While Baker makes an argument for having reliable information
available on just how well you do at work, the idea may still make some
people uncomfortable. Though this information is nominally made
available to management for the purpose of team building, a process
largely dictated by human interaction right now, it’s difficult to look
past the potential for abuse. If that’s not enough to give you pause,
Baker also discusses pattern recognition. This work is intended to let
management know who is falling into communication patterns that
typically indicate attitudes toward the office. For example, employees
who are unhappy and thinking about leaving will often begin to lessen
their communication with their coworkers—fewer interoffice phone calls
and emails. Yikes.
The “Shopper” chapter covered the information I first thought of
when the topic was introduced, and then some. After all, many of us are
aware that our shopping habits are closely examined by marketers and
retailers. Those of us who shop online have been leaving a trail of our
shopping preferences for years now. The Numerati are loving it, too.
That wealth of shopping data will eventually help retailers price their
wares for optimum profit. For example, based on shopping data, they’ll
be able to get a good idea of how many more purchases they can pull in
if they lower an item’s price by a given percentage. They’ll also be
able to better guess what other items their customers might want to buy
based on their purchase history.
This chapter was significantly less shocking to me, personally. I’ve
adjusted to the idea that if I buy a dog collar from Amazon.com, the
next time I visit the site I may be offered deals on dog treats or a
dog training books. What’s more surprising are the statistical
connections that can be made from my purchases. For example, people who
purchase tickets to romantic movies are more likely to rent cars on
weekends. Apparently the statistical explanation has to do with
exposure to the idea of romantic getaways inspiring consumers to rent
vehicles for their own getaways.
This book fills the gap between the world we live in today and those
laid out in some of sci-fi’s greatest universes, like those in the
Terminator series or some of those envisioned by Philip K. Dick. In
these universes, the powers that be draw their power from technology
(or are technology) and its ability to track and understand human
behavior. The steps from today’s world to science fiction’s worlds have
always seemed comfortably unrealistic, or at least distant. No more.
The topic has the potential to be incredibly dry and hopelessly
impenetrable, but thanks to Baker’s definite knack for capturing the
Numeratis’ passion for what they do, and no small talent in the
explanatory department, his book is delightfully accessible. In fact,
by the time I’d finished the Introduction, I’d already checked to see
if he’d written any other books. Sadly, the answer is no. Personally, I
hope the answer is “not yet.”
While there are a number of elements in Baker’s book that are
disturbing, all of it is a fantastic read for absolutely anyone from
techie initiate to expert interested in technology and its likely path
in the not-so-distant future. The only drawback to the book that I can
see is the distinct possibility that it might not age well. The future
is tricky to predict, after all. Even so, I’m willing to bet that it
could be interesting to revisit Numerati in a decade or so to
see how close various predictions came. All in all, though, home run
for Baker, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for more books from him.
The National Review
New data-mining techniques raise questions the Numerati can't answer.
By Robert VerBruggen
the last several years, most Americans have probably noticed that a lot
of businesses, especially on the Internet, have been making careful use
of statistical analysis. Netflix predicts what star rankings its
customers will give certain movies, based on the rankings they’ve given
others. Amazon recommends books that fit a customer’s preferences.
Websites display different ads to different visitors depending on what
other websites they’ve visited.
All of these abilities come from the painstaking analysis of mountains of data, executed by what Business Week’s Stephen Baker calls The Numerati
in his new book by that name. And these number-crunchers don’t limit
themselves to entertainment: They dig through supermarket shoppers’
purchases, looking to improve advertising and store layout; analyze
relationships so they can develop matching technology for dating
services; research the genes and behaviors that can cause disease;
tease out information that might give insights into voting patterns;
and much, much more.
The Numerati is a fascinating and
fast read. Baker has a knack for describing statistical techniques in
ways that everyone can understand, without formulas and without jargon,
while illustrating them with real-world issues.
he takes readers inside Chemistry.com’s matching process. The site’s
algorithm is based on a system that anthropologist Helen Fisher
developed: Various hormones turn people into optimistic Explorers
(dopamine), group-focused Builders (serotonin), logical Directors
(testosterone), and people-skilled Negotiators (estrogen). After taking
a lengthy survey, each potential lovebird is assigned a dominant and
secondary type, and these types — along with demographic information —
guide the computer’s matches.
And of course, in an election
season, who could forget about the data wizards working over poll
numbers at campaigns across the country, hoping to convince undecideds
and get contributions from more dedicated partisans? The data is
increasingly available from aggressive companies — ChoicePoint “quietly
amasses court rulings, tax and real estate transactions, birth and
death notices”; Yankelovich conducted a huge survey about values; and
Acxiom “keeps shopping and lifestyle data on some 200 million
Americans” — nearly every adult in the country.
With this data,
campaigns can use powerful statistical techniques to divide the country
into smaller and smaller segments, and then to target those segments
individually. The Yankelovich survey, for example, found ten value
“tribes” that politicians can “microtarget.” In looking to reach the
survey’s “Right Clicks,” a tech-savvy, Republican-leaning group, a
campaign might go after white males with broadband Internet
connections. Or rather, whiteness, maleness, and broadband ownership
might be three of the countless factors a statistically well-equipped
political team might use.
Then there’s the issue of terrorism.
By statistics’ very nature, data miners can only narrow down a suspect
list. So while these techniques can arguably help make us more secure,
lots of innocent people could find themselves under scrutiny, as well.
Also, since the Numerati can make lots of money in the private sector,
and since the private sector can hire non-citizens, the nation’s
counterterrorism operations are at a severe disadvantage when it comes
to hiring number-crunching talent.
Despite its wealth of information, The Numerati
isn’t a perfect book. Baker tries to humanize his subjects by briefly
profiling them, but he never goes beyond a formulaic physical
description, and the reader never feels like he knows Baker’s sources.
The Numerati are fascinating for what they do, not who they are, so one
wonders why Baker didn’t just leave out these mini-profiles entirely.
while Baker neatly summarizes what the Numerati are up to, he seldom
tries to analyze these trends or figure out what their activity could
mean for society; when he does attempt this, it’s usually not very
For example, in the book’s conclusion, he notes how
employers have called on the Numerati to police our productivity —
through such techniques as snooping in search of time-wasting Internet
use — but claims we can “turn these tools to our advantage.” How? By
“prowling for love on Chemistry.com” and using other consumer services
(on our own time, presumably). Well, sure: In some ways, the Numerati’s
work helps those it touches, and arguably, the good outweighs the bad
in the end. But if a guy finds a hot date, that doesn’t change the fact
that his workplace has taken the form of a Panopticon,
so this really doesn’t address the initial problem of workers losing
all privacy. “These tools” are still recording every click he makes.
biggest problem with the Numerati stems from human nature, and it would
have much improved Baker’s book if he dwelt upon it a bit more: People
pursue their own interests, and manipulate others when the situation
calls for it. Advanced statistics provide a powerful new tool for this.
As he mentions, it can be profitable for supermarket chains to tempt
customers away from their diets by sending them ads for candy, or
arranging the store so they’re more likely to walk past the Doritos
Is that a problem that requires government
intervention? Or is the real problem that better analytical methods
could make Big Government more seductive? After all, Thomas Sowell once
noted that Soviet Union planners “had to set over 24 million prices,”
an impossible feat under Soviet-era technology. But as today’s private
companies learn to collect more and better data from their customers,
and it becomes increasingly possible to set more and more prices from a
central computer — what happens when the state thinks it can do the
same thing for the whole economy? And once it starts along that road —
say, with a nationalized health-care system — what else will it do with
The questions keep piling up. At some point, could advancements in genetics turn the Western world into Gattaca?
Is it a problem that the Karl Roves and Mark Penns of the world are
ever better at massaging their message to influence voters — or, given
that our democracy has always hinged on the whims of clueless
“undecided” voters anyway, does it really matter how the nation’s
cynical pols convince them? Baker takes no positions, offers no
Bottom line: Stephen Baker’s The Numerati offers a glimpse of the future. But someone else will have to tell us how to live in it.
— National Review associate editor Robert VerBruggen edits the Phi Beta Cons blog.
The Christian Science Monitor
The Numerati is a book about math that won’t cause
liberal-arts majors to heave it across the room. The slender volume
contains not a single esoteric Greek letter or mystifying equation.
What’s more, writer Stephen Baker artfully conjures up vivid images
to explain what he’s talking about and why a reader should care.
“The Numerati” is a more literary name for what used to be called
“number crunchers,” the mathematicians and computer geeks who
understand programming, probability, and seemingly incomprehensible
theorems. Teamed with ever more powerful computers linked to the
Internet, they’re on a mission.
“They’re looking for patterns in data that describe something almost
hopelessly complex: human life and behavior,” Baker writes. “The
audacity of their mission is almost maddening.”
They aim to figure out what we’re going to buy, who we’re going to
vote for, how well we do our jobs, perhaps even who we’re likely to
fall in love with, by analyzing the statistical patterns of data.
Think you carefully guard your privacy? Think again. It’s becoming an almost impossible task.
We all leave a trail of digital bread crumbs from our cellphone
calls, Internet searches, credit card purchases, and blog entries, or
on our home pages at social-networking sites such as MySpace or
Even withholding our names doesn’t necessarily make us anonymous
anymore. Eighty-seven percent of Americans can be identified by name if
only their gender, birth date, and postal zip code can be determined,
one recent study found.
Data whizzes, Baker concludes, “are adding us up. We are being quantified.”
East Germany used to employ thousands of spies to find out what their citizens were up to. That’s so 20th-century.
Today, “The computer will rat on us, exposing each one of our online
secrets without a nanosecond of hesitation or regret…. we are in danger
of becoming data serfs – slaves to the information we produce.”
We meet the Numerati in their offices, at cafes, going about their
work. They seem like regular folks, though most don’t seem to have
given much thought as to how computerized profiling is changing the
Using massive data crunches, for example, stores will be able to
spot and discourage “barnacles,” shoppers who nip in to buy only
discounted items. Barnacles will be identified and removed from mailing
lists, not offered coupons, and otherwise deterred from shopping at
that store. Shoppers who’ve shown they’re big spenders, on the other
hand, could be offered extra benefits.
Political strategists already seek the help of the Numerati.
“If the data we emit gives off even the slightest whiff of ‘swing
voter,’ the political Numerati will be hot on our tracks,” Baker says.
The aim: Calculate the rate of return for each advertising dollar so
that ads reach only the exact people they are designed to influence.
We’re being watched and quantified. In fact, a mathematical double
of each of us is being created for the Numerati to observe and
experiment on. “In this new world, all of us are going to face
situations in which our most intimate data is exposed, at least to
somebody,” he says.
Baker, a senior writer and technology blogger at BusinessWeek, isn’t
a dystopian about our shrinking privacy. He simply notes that there’s
not a lot we can do about it.
We can read the small print on website privacy disclosures before we
sign up (even better, one wonders, how about employing computer
programs to read the legalese and alert us to any potential privacy
Someday people may market their personal data themselves, in
essence, get ahead of the curve and profit from what’s going to be
found out about them anyway.
At least some of the time, most people will want to be found and
analyzed. We’ll want our digital identity to be out where computers can
find it, whether we’re searching for love or money, Baker says.
The incentives to make ourselves intelligible to machines will be
too strong to resist. “We need good page rank. We must fit ourselves to
Governments and businesses have long collected information on us.
But never before could they collect the various bits and pieces in one
spot, and then sift, shake, and sort them into a coherent picture.
The old programming adage – “garbage in, garbage out” – is growing less true, Baker says.
Powerful new algorithms are going through your digital garbage and turning it into a gold mine of data about you.
Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.
St. Petersburg Times
Some say environmentalism is the new religion, "green" the new god.
But for a small set of the sharpest mathematicians and engineers and
computer scientists — whose undetected imprint in our lives grows at an
outsize rate — it is the datum that is deity.
These are the The Numerati, the eponymous clan described in BusinessWeek
contributor Stephen Baker's new book. To put not too fine a point on
it, they believe that just about everything, even infinitely
complicated subjects such as love, is describable and explainable
through data. One might say they wish to measure out our lives in
coffee spoons — which means, of course, they must intently watch us
while we make the coffee.
Samer Takriti, a 40-year-old,
IBM-employed stochastic analyst (one who tries to generate predictions
from random events), is currently enveloped in a project to redefine
human-resources management by translating his colleagues into
mathematical symbols. IBM wants to "develop a taxonomy of the skills of
its 300,000 employees" and has therefore enlisted Takriti and his team
to catalog its workers' habits (even the most mundane) and change
individuals into "quantifiable financial instruments." Like, you know,
Eric Dishman, a 40-year-old anthropologist, finds
dissatisfying the murky information that patients provide their doctors
(e.g., "I usually sleep eight hours, but sometimes only five, but I
make up for it on the weekends . . . "). He is therefore engineering a
system of home surveillance that records occupants' every move; a
special carpet in one's kitchen, for example, would register
fluctuations in body weight and send the data directly to the doctor.
that, a team at MIT is experimenting with implantable nanosensors in
mice. They hope that such devices to collect and transmit medical data
will soon be used in humans. Interesting, no doubt. Rather scary, too.
Liam Julian, a St. Petersburg native, is a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
A fascinating look at how our personal data is used
We do it all by reflex by now.
We click our mouses, we punch our cell phones, we insert our credit
and debit cards. And every move we make is creating an individual
portrait of our wants and needs and preferences.
This vast mass of personal data is drawing increasing interest from
marketers of many stripes for many different reasons. These
forward-looking mathematicians and analysts are the subject of Stephen
Baker's utterly fascinating new book, "The Numerati" (Houghton Mifflin,
216 pages, $26).
Baker, a veteran journalist at BusinessWeek, manages to explain this
cutting edge phenomenon and its sometimes-frightening impacts in
accessible prose. He also provides many trenchant examples of how this
data is organized and analyzed.
Baker even sets up a nifty little experiment at an online dating site (chemistry.com).
He and his wife (pretending to be single) fill out its extensive
questionnaires in hopes of discovering whether it would indeed match
them as great potential matches. (It did -- once he discovered he had
mistakenly excluded women of her age.)
But Baker also does not shy from potential problems with all this
data mining and analysis. He writes: "As we encounter mathematical
models built to predict our behavior and divine our deepest desires,
it's only human for each of us to ask, 'Did they get it right? Is that
really me?' "
Stephen Baker discusses "The Numerati" at 8 p.m. Tuesday, at The Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600.
|Smile, you’re on PC.
BY JOHN MINERVINI
day, you leave behind a stream of consumer data like a trail of bread
crumbs: juicy tidbits like your credit card purchases, your Facebook
pictures, your text messages and a thousand other informational
fragments. And just as in the German fairy tale, there is a host of
hungry crows behind you, just waiting until your back is turned to
swoop down and devour these instructive morsels. The crows are
companies like Google and IBM, and little by little, their computers
are gobbling up bits of your behavioral DNA and reassembling them into
a mathematical model of you. That way, they can predict what you’ll
buy, whom you’ll vote for, what you’re sick with, and even whom you
should date. It’s frightening, it’s incredibly lucrative, and it’s all
covered in The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $26). BusinessWeek reporter Stephen Baker takes an in-depth look at the work of the math whizzes who are turning humans into equations.
The good news? Nobody cares enough about you in particular—unless you
happen to be a suspected terrorist or a presidential hopeful—to put a
face with your texting habits or your penchant for electronic porn.
That’s because, at present, Google’s computers aren’t big enough and
their algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough to deal with individual
people in all their complexity. As of right now, computers are lucky if
they can tell the difference between a loyal Clorox consumer and a
But it won’t be that way for long. One of the Numerati’s
overarching goals is the eventual unification of disparate realms of
consumer data—financial ratings, criminal records, buying habits,
medical monitoring, social networking, electronic scheduling, even
personality profiling (thanks, Match.com!). That way, in the future,
when you mark on a health insurance application that you are a
non-smoker, Humana can gently correct you, citing thousands of guilty
nicotine sensors in your bloodstream. That way, when you apply to adopt
a child, the adoption agency will be able to call up all your ex-lovers
from eHarmony to find out how you manage your aggression. That way,
based on your patterns of movement, your demographics and the content
of your emails, the FBI will be able to predict with 92 percent
accuracy that you are a pedophile and put you under surveillance before you’ve committed any crime.
In the face of such digital encroachments, Baker remains remarkably
level-headed, with an attitude comprising equal parts awe, fear and
fatalism. After all, one could make the case that Americans are
compensated for unwanted privacy violations by better health
monitoring, safer borders and micro-targeted marketing. And one thing’s
for sure—there’s no going back. Market forces favor the firm with the
most data and the best algorithms; so—for the time being at least—it’s
a race among Google, IBM, Yahoo, Accenture and a host of other
futuristically named companies to see who can get furthest and deepest
into our wallets, our Rolodexes, our planners and our very minds.
READ: Stephen Baker reads at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 25. Free.
watching you. And every time you click on a website, make a cell-phone
call, swipe a credit card or walk past a security camera, they take
note. Stephen Baker could have easily gone for spooky in this depiction
of the Numerati--his term for the computer scientists and
mathematicians who sort through all the data we throw off in our daily
lives, helping corporations and governments predict (and manipulate)
our next move. But Baker's deep reportage goes beyond smart shopping
carts that entice us to run up our grocery bills and political messages
crafted on our preference for Chianti. The Numerati are also behind the
algorithms that drive matchmaking websites, the National Security
Agency's work to nab terrorists before they strike and, increasingly,
the cutting edge of medicine. Consider a "magic carpet" that detects
changes in your elderly father's weight and gait--tipping off his
doctor to a potential illness. The Numerati, Baker writes, try to model
"something almost hopelessly complex: human life and behavior." They're
An author argues that sophisticated data tracking will save us from diseases and ourselves. But at what price?
Photoillustration by: Ji Lee
n The Numerati,
Stephen Baker envisions a world in which our email and blog postings, our credit-card and grocery purchases, our pulse rates and facial expressions, and even our physical movements (handily tracked by our cell phones) will be fed to a new Brahmin class of math geeks devoted to sending us customized shopping choices, targeted political ads, real-time medical alerts, and the names of potential dating partners, not to mention (lest we be shirking on the job or hiding an illness) alerts to our bosses and insurance companies. If you’re a crook or a would-be terrorist, an army of data-interpreting sleuths (the Numerati
of Baker’s title) will model your behavior and ferret you out. If you’re a potential Tide buyer or an undecided voter in a swing state, they’ll do pretty much the same. If you’re a candidate for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s—maybe the vocabulary in your email becomes less expansive—they’ll know it before your doctor does. Baker, a longtime BusinessWeek
writer, foresees our having a technological “dashboard” that will serve as a “control panel for our lives.” Sensors attached to our bodies will provide streams of data on our health and wellness. Though the technology is still in its infancy, it will one day “empower” us.
More Book Reviews from Portfolio.com
Human beings have always produced oceans of information. (Some might call it garbage.) Every phone call, every trip to the watercooler, every purchase of gum or cigarettes, adds to the kaleidoscope of who we are. But until now, most of that data has been lost. Our written words “moldered on pages,” as Baker notes, and our movements went untracked. Now that those troves of information can be digitized, it remains only for them to be modeled and the disparate and random streams of data to be sifted and interpreted for their hidden coherence. Do more nocturnal trips to the bathroom (recorded by a swatch of “magic carpet” in the hallway) signal the onset of a medical problem? If you listen to the same music as other likely Barack Obama voters, are you worth an extra marketing expense to his campaign?
Baker is convinced that his Numerati, a half-dozen of whom he profiles, will eventually bring this world about. He is pretty much their cheerleader. In a typical passage, he describes Nathan Eagle, who is attempting to use cell-phone data to map “the DNA of our behavior.” Will he link us to new friends and lovers? Will he discover in our text messages valuable commercial information? Eagle’s scheme, Baker writes approvingly, “is about using our data to make ourselves happier, richer, and surrounded by more friends—or perhaps just to know ourselves better.”
The era when technology was not so unreservedly trusted is now only dimly recalled. The computers of my youth were fortresses of metal, forbidding accomplices to the Department of Defense and the Rand Corp. Members of the present generation, though tethered to their Apples, associate technology with openness and freedom.
In the former Soviet Union, the computer busted what had been a monopoly on information flow. It became a tool of liberation. But surely, in a free society, prying electronic eyes should also have their limits. And we should question whether we want a dashboard to control our lives.
Baker grapples with at least the first of these issues. He acknowledges that the Numerati’s vision troubles those who want to preserve an iota of privacy. But he does not seem bothered by it. Writing about technologies that exploit the dynamics of social networks like Facebook, Baker hypothesizes that when employees misbehave, their bosses will be able to figure out which of their office friends to monitor as likely accomplices. If this sounds like prying, Baker urges us to “look at the bright side.” Meaning: “Once the Numerati master these techniques on us, maybe they can use them to catch terrorists.” This is a tad too facile. Security has always been the excuse of snoops. When Baker concludes, “We’re going to have to reevaluate our ideas about privacy,” I was reminded of those nightmare scenes of an ultraconformist future out of The Twilight Zone
More Book Reviews from Portfolio.com
This darker threat is probably less political than sociological—that the Numerati will redefine people as the mere sum of their data. To the man with a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. To the Numerati, our every breath becomes a nail for digital marketing.
It’s true that many of the applications that have so enchanted Baker are undeniably appealing. In the medical world, data flows too slowly; would that it were wired. And Baker is a charming writer. In a chapter on digital matchmaking, he wonders why the computer can’t match him to the wife to whom he is happily married.
Yet I keep thinking that he embraces the commercial bent of the Numerati too unconditionally. Baker speculates that technology will enable political candidates to target their pitches, and on that happy day, “it will be as though they finally understand us.” Not quite. It’s more likely that pols will have finally mastered the art of selling their campaigns like soap. Baker himself likens voters to “buckets of broccoli eaters or Mars Bars buyers in the supermarkets.”
This leads to a troubling question: Can one’s character really be deconstructed into predictive “buckets”? In other words, are we fully reducible to math?
A final question is whether the technology will work. For instance, will scouring the random jottings of bloggers for references to deodorant or beer actually predict their behavior and tastes? There is a serious risk of “garbage in, garbage out.”
To his credit, Baker makes no claim of perfection on the part of the Numerati. (He tells of how one electronic sensor relayed news of an apparent sudden weight gain by a patient; it turned out that her cat had joined her in bed.) And he admits that the technology has a long way to go before it is viable. In the meantime, this is an eye-opening and chilling book.
Read “Numerati” for a Penetrating Look at Data Mining
The “Numerati” are an evolving class of quant-humping,
algorithm experts who will be playing an enormous role in shaping our
society, our economy and our lives. They are the types who founded Google and Yahoo but
they are going beyond simple searching to manipulating and massaging
the tremendous mass of data that we generate from Web clicks and cell
Stephen Baker has written an engrossing, elegant little book
(Houghton Mifflin) about the entire genre of data mining mathematicians
who are at the controls of this revolution. It’s been a while since
I’ve read a business book this good, but I must disclose that Steve has
been a colleague of mine off and on for 20 years. I have always admired
his writing and analytic talent and his way of explaining things in
ways that are both warm-hearted and wry.
Who are the Numerati? There’s Samer Takriti, the Syrian-born math Ph.D. who works for IBM and is an expert at stochastic analysis, or trying to tie predictions to random seemingly events. M.I.T.-trained Frenchman Pierre Haren is a whiz at arranging that airplane passengers from mainland China and Taiwan don’t bump into each other at Singapore’s airport. And, there’s Rayid Ghani, a Pakistani whose expertise is studying shopping behavior by examining lots and lots of receipts. These are just a few.
Non-techies such as myself can learn a lot from Steve’s book. For
instance, bargain-clipping shoppers who roam from store to store
snapping up specials are called “barnacles” by data
miners because they are useless drains on grocery chains which count
their very slender profit margins in tens of a percentage point. In the
political realm, there are “Right Clickers,” who are
conservatives who are so savvy with computers they instinctively click
on the right side of a mouse and are prime candidates for Web-based
And, if you have an elderly parent as I do, you might be interested
to know that data miners are considering putting in linoleum kitchen
floors filled with sensors that can reveal tell-tale signs of problems
such as weight gain. If the gain is sudden, it can mean that the
elderly one is retaining lung fluid because of heart malfunctions. Or,
erratic patterns can signal the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Steve visits the which
has drawn criticism for collecting billions of data bits from e-mails
and cell phone calls after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The problem, an
NSA mathematician explains, is that while they can handle the massive
data, it is really hard to match a name with a face, which is the sine qua non of snaring terrorists.
Some of the material is familiar as are some of the fears. Bosses
can hover over us with an electronic clipboard threatening our personal
privacy. Every single movement of our life can be tracked thanks to
grocery loyalty cards and traffic toll payment devices.
There has been plenty written about the Data Big Brother controlling
us. To Steve’s credit, he doesn’t fall victim to hyperventilating
paranoia. He addresses the good and the bad that can come with the
Numerati’s growing ability to watch us and predict our next moves.
My only criticism is that the book is a little too short. I wanted
Steve to draw even more detailed sketches of the individual Numerati.
All in all, though, his book is excellent.
|- Bnet, September 3, 2008
|Data is the new black
Any time we log on to a website, make a cell phone call or swipe a credit card, we leave a virtual trail behind. That much is clear (or should be) to any technology user. Nonetheless, The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin, $26, 288 pages, ISBN 9780618784608) by BusinessWeek writer Stephen Baker will be an eye-opening read for even the techiest among us. The Numerati, he explains, are the computer scientists and mathematicians who analyze our every click in an effort to learn how humans shop, work and consume media. He writes, “In a single month, Yahoo alone gathers 110 billion pieces of data about its customers,” but notes that sorting through data and assembling useable patterns is a mighty task—there’s still plenty of untapped potential. At Carnegie Mellon, grad students analyze old Enron emails for hints about the company’s downfall. IBM uses staffers’ contact lists to track employee engagement and productivity. An unnamed grocery chain assesses purchasing patterns; someday, that data could be used in “smart carts,” with screens that display targeted information or special
offers. Fascinating? Yes. Creepy? Sure. But Baker also points out that there’s a non-commercial aspect to the Numeratis’ work: applications for medicine, security, even love (via better matches for online daters). After all, the Numerati are people, too.
|- Linda M. Castellitto, August 27, 2008
|Every click we make, every cell phone call, every credit-card purchase enlarges our “digital dossiers,” business journalist Baker explains in this bracing behind-the-screen investigation into the booming world of data mining and analysis. Our digital echoes collect in a vast ocean of data that marketers and government agencies alike are eager to trawl, if only it were charted. Enter the top-notch mathematicians Baker dubs the Numerati. Baker gamely visits eerily high-tech companies and speaks with algorithm whizzes intent on quantifying everything we do in all arenas of life in order to mathematically model humanity and manipulate our behavior. Baker’s report on microtargeted marketing, the use of workplace data to “optimize” employees, the scrutiny of online social networks, and the robotic reading of millions of blogs supports his warning that we’re “in danger of becoming data serfs—slaves to the information we produce.” This is a fascinating outing of the hidden yet exploding world of digital surveillance and stealthy intrusions into our decision-making processes as we buy food, make a date, or vote for president. Yet, as Baker assures us, we are not helpless. For one thing, machines still can’t process sarcasm. Read and resist.
| In this captivating exploration of digital nosiness, business
reporter Baker spotlights a new breed of entrepreneurial mathematicians
(the “numerati”) engaged in harnessing the avalanche of private data
individuals provide when they use a credit card, donate to a cause,
surf the Internet—or even make a phone call. According to the author,
these crumbs of personal information—buying habits or preferences—are
being culled by the numerati to radically transform, and customize,
everyday experiences; supermarket “smart carts” will soon greet
shoppers by name, guide them to their favorite foods, tempting them
with discounts only on items they like; candidates will be able to
tailor their messages to specific voters; sensors in homes or even
implanted in bodies themselves will report early warnings of medical
problems (“have you noticed Grandpa has been walking slower?”), predict
an increased risk of disease in the future or adjust a drug for a
single individual. An intriguing but disquieting look at a not too
distant future when our thoughts will remain private, but computers
will disclose our tastes, opinions, habits and quirks to curious
parties, not all of whom have our best interests at heart. (Sept. 15)
Kirkus Reviews - https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-baker/the-boost/
LibraryJournal - Library Journal
Booklist Reviews - David Pitt
Locus - Paul di Filippo
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