American authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’s self-help book Algorithms to Live By
(2016) is an exploration of how insights from computer algorithms can be applied to problems from everyday life to help solve common decision-making problems. Focusing on and illuminating the function of the working mind, it explores themes of order vs. spontaneity, finding balance in life, and the way technology influences the way we think. Written from the combined expertise of a computer expert and a psychologist, Algorithms to Live By
became a bestseller in the self-help field and was met with overwhelming critical acclaim.Algorithms to Live By
begins by introducing the concept of an algorithm, which is described as nothing more than a recipe, or a series of steps that can be followed to solve a specific problem and can be re-run as often as needed to provide a solution. The book describes how our brains use them all the time to complete incomplete information or focus on the facts at hand, allowing us to make a decision without being paralyzed by indecision. It gives several scenarios where algorithms can be used to make life easier, including cleaning up a home using sorting algorithms, limiting the time used on time management with to-do list patterns, and using game theory and mechanism design to improve decision-making skills.
The book then goes into depth on these three algorithms, beginning with how to organize the home better using a variety of sorting algorithms. It states that there is order in chaos and what truly matters is to be able to find what is needed quickly. It describes three specific kinds of sorting algorithms. The first is the bubble sort, which is done by comparing two items at a time and putting them in the right order, going through all items one by one and swapping them if the order is wrong. Once the list is finished, go through the list one more time to check if anything needs to be swapped. This mechanic is ideal for sorting books and documents in particular, as they all fit into a similar format and clear order. The insertion sort requires taking all items out to be organized and then inserting them one by one in the right order. This is ideal for organizing the wardrobe. The merge sort is the most complex method and is ideal for packing things up when moving. It is done by dividing all items into multiple piles, sorting them (usually by room), and then reassembling the sorted piles to get an ideal picture.
Lesson two shows how to avoid wasting time managing time by picking a to-do list algorithm. Many people are frustrated by the amount of time wasted in the process of organizing; this streamlines the process by using algorithms to determine what is the ideal use of time. The first method to create an order is to sort by earliest due date. This method involves sorting all tasks by deadlines, starting with the one that’s due next. This way, it’s easy to avoid any time issues. If it’s too late in the process for that and all tasks can’t be completed by the deadline, Moore’s Algorithm suggests skipping the task that takes the longest to complete. This frees up the biggest chunk of time, ensuring that the greatest possible number of tasks get completed. The third algorithm, shortest processing time, involves sorting tasks by how long they’re going to take and starting with the shortest. However, that one is vulnerable to priority inversion, which means focusing on urgent minor tasks rather than major, important ones. The book states that the ultimate algorithm is to focus on one thing until it’s done, once it’s decided where to begin.
Lesson three shows how to make better decisions using game theory and mechanism design. Game theory is a field of economics that deals with how rational people make decisions and how other people’s decisions affect that. The most famous example is the prisoner’s dilemma, where two prisoners are offered the same deal and their fate depends on each other. Both will generally betray their partner. However, in the real world, people have a natural tendency to cooperate, even when they can’t agree to do so. Thus, the best way to avoid a prisoner’s dilemma is to try to get the involved parties to talk. Mechanism design involves asking what would force me to make the best decision. An example is when a company wants to encourage people to use their vacation days so they’ll be more energized for their job, they make vacations mandatory. These algorithms are all used in data and computer programming, and they can very easily be applied to everyday life.
Brian Christian is an American author of nonfiction books and poetry, with a specialty in the subject of computer science and artificial intelligence. He is best known for his books The Most Human Human
and Algorithms to Live By.
Tom Griffiths is a professor of psychology and cognitive science and the director of the Computational Cognitive Science Lab at UC Berkeley.