• Scott Watkins

Algorithm and Blues

This week, I have been musing about algorithms. (Stay with me for just a minute, please.)

An algorithm is a set of codified rules used to solve a problem. Digitized algorithms affect your life, probably more than you think. The digitization of algorithms enables technology to improve our lives because they ease the burden of decision making.

Thanks to digitized algorithms drones, airplanes and cars can operate themselves. Financial trading, energy distribution and healthcare are being improved. Netflix knows what I should watch, and Amazon knows what I should buy. Facebook knows what I should read; Google knows what advertisements I should see. Microsoft Word is telling me how I should write this sentence.

Digitized algorithms are growing in use because they are powerful. The social groups we belong to once were our primary source of help in navigating life choices, but now we have algorithms. Who needs people when you have a computer equipped with a really smart algorithm? So, will algorithms replace our human connections in the future? That’s a question I might consider another time. But this week I was contemplating the trust we place in algorithms.

I trust algorithms to varying degrees. Netflix recommendations aren’t so hot. Amazon is spotty with their suggestions. Google advertisements are often shockingly (borderline creepy) relevant. And Word, well, I don’t even bother questioning it. I didn’t give thought to the algorithm that ran the autopilot on my last flight. And I wouldn’t second guess a self-driving vehicle, even though I am literally putting my life into its hands. So, why do I trust algorithms? I can think of a few reasons.

In some ways, computers are smarter than people. They hold more easily accessible short-term memory and can recall information incredibly fast. Computers can solve problems that contain hundreds or thousands of variables, can learn much faster, and they never forget.

Second, I think we trust them to the degree that we trust their creators. If we believe the developer has our best interests in mind, we will trust the algorithm more. I don’t think the developer of the algorithm that controls a commercial airplane’s autopilot is trying to hurt me. This gives me peace of mind.

Digitizing algorithms is new, but algorithms have been around forever. If you define an algorithm as ‘a set of codified rules used to solve a problem’, then you can see how common they are.

Problem: How should a nation organize itself? Algorithm: The U.S. Constitution. Problem: What is the optimal path to happiness. Algorithm: The Bible. Algorithms are everywhere.

Thinking about the Bible in this context allows for an interesting thought experiment. Sometimes God’s ‘algorithm for life’ is hard to follow because we aren’t properly considering the superior wisdom of its creator, or we mistrust his motives.

But here is what I concluded.

God is smarter than me, and he is smarter than a computer. He created the atoms that were formed into elements. These elements were formed into computer components that were invented by a human mind that he also created. He is superior to the creation’s creation.

Secondly, God has my best interests in mind. He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32, NIV). I can trust God’s motives.

So, if I can trust the algorithms that flow from the minds of humans, how much more should I be able to trust The Algorithm inspired by God himself.