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The Master Algorithm | Strategy+ Business

Theodore Kinni comments on Pedro Domingos’s new book, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for Machine Learning Will Remake our World (Basic Books, 2015).

Domingos is a professor at the University of Washington, Domingos is a leading expert in the fields of machine learning and data mining.

His master algorithm would allow machines to learn without human assistance.

“Every algorithm has an input and an output: the data goes into the computer, the algorithm does what it will with it, and out comes the result,” Domingos explains. “Machine learning turns this around: in goes the data and the desired result and out comes the algorithm that turns one into the other.”

Learning algorithms are already commonplace. Netflix uses them to pick movies for us; Amazon to recommend books; Google to search out Web pages. But Domingos is pursuing something much more far-reaching.

“In fact, the Master Algorithm is the last thing we’ll ever have to invent because, once we let it loose, it will go on to invent everything that can be invented,” he writes. “All we need to do is provide it with enough of the right kind of data, and it will discover the corresponding knowledge.”

Most of The Master Algorithm is devoted to a survey of the progress that has been made in the quest to discover the one algorithm that could end up ruling us all.

Currently, the quest is made up of five expeditions — each led by advocates of one of the major schools of thought in the academy of machine learning: symbolists, who see learning as a process of inverse deduction; connectionists, who think the answer lies in reverse engineering the human brain; evolutionaries, who are looking to genetics and evolutionary biology; Bayesians, who are following a path of probabilistic inference and statistics; and analogizers, who think learning will come from “extrapolating similarity judgments.”

The master algorithm, he believes, will be derived from a synthesis of these five schools.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the book is the glimpse it gives us into the mind of its author. In the final chapter, Domingos envisions the world after the discovery of the master algorithm. As might be expected of a computer scientist, this world has utopian overtones.

There is a dark lining to the silver cloud.

“What we’ll likely see is unemployment creeping up, downward pressure on the wages of more and more professions, and increasing rewards for the fewer and fewer that can’t yet be automated,” Domingos writes.

“When the unemployment rate rise above 50 percent, or even before, attitudes about redistribution will radically change,” he adds. “The newly unemployed majority will vote for generous lifetime unemployment benefits and the sky-high taxes needed to fund them. These won’t break the bank because machines will do the necessary production.”


Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor for strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.  

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