The History of Algorithms: From Choosing Basketball Teams to Reducing Pilot Error

The Undoing Project: The Friendship that Changed Our Minds

By Michael Lewis

WW Norton (2016)

Book Review

This is a book about the pioneers in the movement to improve human decision making with data collection and statistical methods. It focuses on the work of Daryl Morey, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Morey was a math nerd who taught the sports world to rely on data collected on prospective players to facilitate their selection by professional teams. Morey first brought this process to public attention in the late eighties as the general manager of the Houston Rockets baseball team. This approach would quickly be adopted to predict performance in basketball, football, banking, political campaigns, movie production, and farming. At present, the use of data-based “algorithms”* extends to nearly every area of human endeavor.

Most of the book focuses on the unique 15-year partnership between Israeli psychologist Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. As with most of his books, Lewis’s forte is unraveling the intricacy of interpersonal relationship. In The Undoing Project, his main focus is to explore the unique creative relationship behind their revolutionary work.

Tversky, a giant in the field of mathematical psychology, had a special interest in ascertaining how people make choices and decisions. In their initial work at Hebrew University, he and Kahneman assisted the Israeli Defense Force in identifying objective data to determine which troops would perform best in combat.

Their research probably had the most impact on so-called free market economics. Prior to their ground breaking work, most economists believed consumers had rational reasons for the purchases they make.

The work of Tversky and Kahneman also challenged the notion of “expert judgement” in many fields, eg the inability of psychologists/psychiatrists to predict dangerous in patients and of radiologists to accurately diagnose cancer from x-rays. In both areas, Tversky’s and Kahneman’s work facilitated the development of algorithms that were far more reliable than human experts, whose judgement is often impaired by boredom, fatigue, stress, and unconscious biases.

In addition to advising the National Basketball Association, NATO, and the US Secret Service on reducing the fallibility of human decision making, the pair also played a role in reducing pilot error on commercial aircraft.

Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. Tversky was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 2996 but died of melanoma before it could be awarded.


*By definition an “algorithm” is a set of mathematical instructions that are followed in precise order to solve a problem.

The Danger of Biased Artificial Intelligence

The World According to AI – Episode 2 The Bias in the Machine

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

This documentary examines how drone algorithms the US military developed for the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen (see Civilian Drone Strikes: Targeted by Algorithm) are being rolled out by urban police. Because these law enforcement algorithms are based on faulty data, they disproportionately target the poor and minorities. Because these particular zip codes are already over-policed, they provide the vast majority of data used in creating new algorithms.

What the filmmakers find particularly alarming is that many of the same algorithms are used to make bail decisions, sentencing recommendations and credit scores, as well as determining eligibility for state housing and other benefits.

The filmmakers visit Skid Road, the second most policed area in the world, after Baghdad. Owing to the current housing crisis, it hosts a massive homeless population, most of whom are either Black or disabled. The reason Skid Row is so heavily policed is because Skid Row borders on the wealthy Los Angeles financial district. One Skid Row woman has been arrested 108 times for sitting or lying on the sidewalk.

The US military also uses Skid Row population to test new spy software.

Al Jazeera Film Challenges Trump’s Election Win

Unfair Game

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

The them of this documentary is that Trump used unfair tactics to win the 2016 electoral college vote, despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.

Most of the the film focuses on the California subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica, which purchased personal data from Facebook, Google, Twitter and other Internet data harvesting firms. It then used sophisticated algorithms to individually target potential Trump supporters in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

According to filmmakers, Cambridge Analytica compiled 4,000 data points regarding the personal lives of 23 million voters. They then used the data to generate paid “dark posts” on Facebook. Dark posts are the weird personal ads and messages that pop up briefly on your Facebook news feed and then disappear.

Although it was intriguing to learn how Cambridge Analytica massaged personal data to identify and influence potential Trump voters, I objected to the way the documentary blames the Trump campaign for introducing microtargeting (potential supporters) to US elections. It was actually the Obama campaign that pioneered microtargeting, which is largely credited for his ability to overcome Republican vote rigging and vote suppression efforts in 2008 and 2012.

When the Obama campaign engaged in microtargeting, they were widely hailed as ingenious public relations innovators. When the Trump campaign does it, he’s branded as a liar and a thief. While I have no love for Donald Trump, the clear bias in this film really irritates me. I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton, who inherited many of Obama’s campaign staffers, also used microtargeting in her campaign.

That being said, I found it significant that Cambridge Analytica was actually an offshoot of the British Strategic Communications Laboratory, which was widely used by NATO, NSA, the State Department and other deep state actors to influence US and global opinion and meddle in foreign elections. I was previously unaware that the California branch of Cambridge Analytica was headed by Trump’s campaign manager Steve Bannon and mainly funded by Trump’s biggest campaign donor, Robert Mercer.

The first 15 minutes of the documentary in which, “mainstream” corporate journalists decry the unregulated dissemination of “fake news” by “ultra right wing” online publications, is frankly embarrassing.It was the collective decision by so-called “mainstream” media to become a propaganda mouthpiece for the CIA, State Department and Pentagon that led Americans to look to the Internet for alternative sources of information.