The design of organisations and products
Well adumbrated by the Robert Fripp of Philosophy, Daniel Dennett:
Three key features of algorithms will be important to us, and each is somewhat difficult to define. Each, moreover, has given rise to confusions (and anxieties) that continue to beset our thinking about Darwin’s revolutionary discovery, so we will have to revisit and reconsider these introductory characterizations several times before we are through:
(1) substrate neutrality: The procedure for long division works equally well with pencil or pen, paper or parchment, neon lights or skywriting, using any symbol system you like. The power of the procedure is due to its logical structure, not the causal powers of the materials used in the instantiation, just so long as those causal powers permit the prescribed steps to be followed exactly.
(2) underlying mindlessness: Although the overall design of the procedure may be brilliant, or yield brilliant results, each constituent step, as well as the transition between steps, is utterly simple. How simple? Simple enough for a dutiful idiot to perform—or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform. The standard textbook analogy notes that algorithms are recipes of sorts, designed to be followed by novice cooks. A recipe book written for great chefs might include the phrase “Poach the fish in a suitable wine until almost done,” but an algorithm for the same process might begin, “Choose a white wine that says ‘dry’ on the label; take a corkscrew and open the bottle; pour an inch of wine in the bottom of a pan; turn the burner under the pan on high; ...” —a tedious breakdown of the process into dead-simple steps, requiring no wise decisions or delicate judgments or intuitions on the part of the recipe-reader.
(3) guaranteed results: Whatever it is that an algorithm does, it always does it, if it is executed without misstep. An algorithm is a foolproof recipe.
An algorithm’s success depends on all problems within its field of operation having been finally solved, so it can operate without obstruction or intervention from a guiding intelligent hand. Described by Daniel Dennett as a “universal acid”, the concept of the algorithm has certainly burned through ifs fair share of synapses in the management consulting industry. The notion that the something of rice pudding and income tax might come from the nothing of primordial sludge, without a beneficent creator, is the basis behind the current dogmas of artificial intelligence, and the belief that no intelligence, let alone subject matter expertise, is needed to manage a complex process such as running an investment bank.
Compare with a heuristic.
Of particular interest in financial services:
- High-frequency trading computers follow algorithms faster and more reliably than a mortal trader could dream of;
- The dogma of outsourcing is predicated on a playbook; a form of algorithm for the meatware.
Also of great interest to evolutionary biologists, psychiatrists and philosophers: According to Daniel Dennett, the great (if unstated) insight of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was that the evolutionary process was a mindless, algorithmic one, that could operate without intervention. This made him a household name (Dennett, not Darwin) when he published Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.