One Algorithm to Rule Them All


During a recent Q&A session on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was asked a question by the famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking

I would like to know a unified theory of gravity and the other forces. Which of the big questions in science would you like to know the answer to and why?

Zuckerberg answered he was “most interested in questions about people,” and then began to provide some examples of his answer such as “What will enable us to live forever?” and “How can we empower humans to learn a million times more?” He then made this statement which reveals so much about himself:

I’m also curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is.

That’s right. As Nicholas Carr surmises in his article, Zuckerburg believes all “human relations and affiliations can be reduced to equations”. Of course you can hardly blame him for believing this way. This is a man who has “made a fortune by seeing people as nodes in a mathematical graph”. Look at all the success, fame and fortune this way of thinking has brought him.

This new kind of behavioralism believes that big data around human behavior, in combination with sophisticated mathematical modeling and predictions, will provide a new set of rules by which new social systems will be more accurately engineered. But as Carr asks, these “better engineered social systems” are better for whom? And better by what measure?

In my opinion, this is so typical of modern thinking from technologists. We so easily confuse “the measurement of a phenomenon with the cause of the phenomenon”. We really seem to believe that if some data gives us a pattern, then more and more data will give us a fundamental law by which we can predict outcomes, even in something as unpredictable as humans.

But we humans aren’t so easily pigeonholed. While Zuckerberg is theorizing mathematically predicting and modeling the countlessly-nuanced biological emotions of human beings using computers, in practice we still haven’t discovered a reliable pattern for retrieving and storing a human’s name in a computer system:

John Graham-Cumming wrote an article today complaining about how a computer system he was working with described his last name as having invalid characters. It of course does not, because anything someone tells you is their name is — by definition — an appropriate identifier for them. John was understandably vexed about this situation, and he has every right to be, because names are central to our identities, virtually by definition… I have never seen a computer system which handles names properly and doubt one exists, anywhere.

Computers like rules, they live on patterns. When something breaks a pattern it’s an exception that has to be programmatically accounted for. And when it comes to humans, something as simple as our names is incredibly difficult to patternize for every single human being. Sure there are general rules that can be assumed but they don’t work for everyone everywhere. And that’s just with our names.

Can you imagine trying to pin down the edge cases for human emotion?