Hannah Fry shortlist author interview
What does it feel like to be shortlisted?
Well. I cried for about half an hour when I found out, which I think sums up my reaction rather neatly. (Actually, I was walking through the streets of New York at the time. Sobbing openly. Not my proudest moment).
Writing this book was such an enormous challenge. I felt like I was walking on an incredibly thin tightrope trying to find the line between gripping, surprising stories and hard punching, up-to-the minute science – all the while aware how many people shudder when they hear the word ‘algorithm’, but knowing how much they’re already changing all our lives.
So, against that backdrop, being shortlisted really matters. It means that somehow - amid all those horrible, horrible days when I wanted to throw my laptop out the window – I managed to walk that careful line & end up writing something worth reading. You can’t ask for more than that.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’m going to cheat here & put in an excerpt from a Guardian article I wrote a few weeks ago, because it sums up the story perfectly:
Shortly after my PhD, I was working on a project with the Metropolitan police in London, looking back at what happened during the widespread riots in the city during 2011. We wanted to understand how rioters chose where to congregate, with the intention of being able to predict lawless behaviour in the future, if such an event were ever to occur again.
It was all proof of concept, and wouldn’t have been much good in a real-world riot, but nonetheless, I supported the idea: that police should be given all the tools at their disposal to bring about a swift resolution to any unrest.
Once the paper had been published, I went to Berlin to give a talk on the work. I was universally positive about it on stage. Here was this great promise of a new technique, I boasted to the audience, that the police could use to keep control of a city.
But if there is one city in the world where people truly understand what it means to live in a police state, it is Berlin. In a city where the repressive rule of the Stasi is so fresh in the memory, people of Berlin did not take kindly to my flippant optimism.
Naive as I was, it just hadn’t occurred to me that an idea used to quash lawless looting in London, might also be deployed to suppress legitimate protests. But the reaction of the audience that day stayed with me: I realized how easy it was to sit in your ivory tower and write lines of computer code without being mindful of the full potential consequences of your work.
-- From that point on, I started to notice how I wasn’t alone in my naïve optimism about algorithms. So many people around me were building things without thinking about the possible implications of their work. I realised the people making algorithms often aren’t talking to the people who are using them. And the people who are using them often aren’t talking to whose lives are being changed by them.
How did you research?
Slowly & painfully! I’ve worked as an academic in roughly this area for a good few years, but I still had to read thousands of articles – hundreds of academic papers – scores of books to get up to speed on the wide breadth of topics I covered. I probably read more for this than I did for my own PhD. But – as is always the way, I learned the most when I went out and spoke to experts in each of the different fields, got their take on what was important, listened to their arguments and counter arguments & allowed their wisdom to shape my opinion.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
For me, the answer to this question will always be Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh. It’s about an amazingly simple (but deceptively tricky) maths problem that stood unsolved for four hundred years and Andrew Wiles, the man who finally solved it.
At its heart, it’s a story about the very limits of human endeavour – what can be accomplished when someone of astonishing ability totally commits everything they have to achieving their goal. I think I’ve read it about fourteen times & every time it has a profound effect on me.
Actually, it’s been a good five years since I last read it. Maybe it’s time for number 15…
Is there an algorithm that has particularly disturbing potential?
I’m not a massive fan of the algorithms online that work out our most intimate secrets – your true sexuality, whether you’ve used drugs, whether you’ve had an abortion or a miscarriage and so on. But China has a version of these algorithms that are like something out of an episode of Black Mirror. The idea is that every resident of China has a ‘citizen score’ – a number between 350 and 950 that sums up your value to society as a person.
Everything goes into it. Your credit history, your mobile phone number, your address – the usual stuff. But all your day-to-day behaviour, too. Your social media posts, the data from your ride-hailing app, even records from your online matchmaking service.
If you buy nappies, you’re considered responsible, so your score goes up. If you play video games for ten hours a day, you’re considered idle, so your score goes down. There’s even talk of linking the system up to the facial recognition running in the city’s CCTV cameras, which’ll be there to spy on you jaywalking.
And these scores matter – if you get over a certain score, you can take out a special credit card, or hire a car without a deposit, or use a VIP lane at the airport. And if you dip below a certain score, they can ban you from using certain hotels, and even limit what visas you can apply for.
From the people in China I’ve spoken to, no one seems particularly bothered by the idea – due to be rolled out as mandatory in 2020. But if you ask me, it’s a pretty dystopian view of what might lie ahead for all of us if we don’t take the power of algorithms seriously.
What are you working on next?
Too many things. Television projects, radio shows, teaching masters students, limbering up to write a new book. Oh, and I’m just about to have a baby.
It’s okay though. I can sleep when I’m dead.