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The algorithm method: Programming our lives away Add to ...

Here are two stories about love in the age of the algorithm.

The first one is from the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which features a cast of science geeks trying to navigate through the non-geek world.

In one episode, the nerdiest of the nerds, Sheldon Cooper, is trying to score a piece of lab equipment from a colleague. He needs to befriend the colleague, but he has no idea how to make a new friend. So he does what he does best: He draws up an elaborate flow chart, which he calls a "friendship algorithm," to help guide him through the phone call.

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"Perhaps we could share a meal together?" Sheldon asks. If the answer is yes, he moves on to negotiate a time and a place. If the answer is no, he defaults to the next question, "How about a hot beverage?" followed by, "Perhaps we share a recreational interest?"

"I believe I've isolated the algorithm for making friends," Sheldon gushes to his friend Leonard.

"Sheldon," Leonard replies, "there is no algorithm for making friends."

Not so fast, Leonard. Fortune magazine recently featured a story about the 10-year-old matchmaking site eHarmony, which has recently embraced the age of the algorithm. It has developed a formula that looks at hundreds of factors to determine whether two people might be compatible, including the way they use eHarmony: For example, it collects data on how long a user takes to respond to an e-mail about a match, presuming that procrastinators will be attracted to other procrastinators and vice-versa.

Algorithms are turning up in the most unlikely places, promising to assert mathematical probability into corners of our lives where intuition, instinct and hunches have long held sway.

Increasingly, algorithms are used to determine whether we can get access to credit, insurance and government services. They are posing a challenge to human decision-making in the arts. They are being used by prospective employers to decide if we should be hired. They can determine whether your online business will succeed or fail, and they have revolutionized the world of high finance.

And yet these algorithms remain a mystery to us, their inner workings protected by various intellectual property and trade-secrecy laws. Critics are beginning to wonder if we are surrendering too much human agency to the all-powerful gods of mathematics.

A recipe for Web searching, book buying, apple pie or love

But wait, non-Sheldon-types may be saying now: What is an algorithm?

Algorithms are deceptively easy to define. They have actually been around since the beginning of recorded history. They are written formulas for solving problems. An apple-pie recipe is an algorithm, so long as someone could successfully bake the pie by following the instructions. A computer program is simply an algorithm written for a computer.

Algorithms are frequently displayed as flow charts, like Sheldon's friendship algorithm. They outline "yes" or "no" options to a series of questions. If I purchase the new Philip Roth novel on a bookstore website, the site's algorithm is programmed to start asking questions about me: Do I read fiction? Yes. Do I like contemporary American novelists? Yes. Jewish? Yes. … May we also recommend Saul Bellow?

The most useful algorithms can incorporate enormous amounts of data that we make available to them - sometimes wittingly, sometimes not - to make connections between seemingly unconnected pieces of information and predict our behaviour. Every credit-card purchase, every search, every click of the computer mouse adds to this massive database of our interests and intentions.

As eHarmony has discovered, the more questions and the more data, the greater the likelihood the end user will be satisfied with the result. That used to be a problem, back when data storage was expensive and bandwidth was scarce. But today, bandwidth is plentiful and the cost of storage has dropped to almost zero. There is now virtually no limit to the size and complexity of algorithms.

Take, for example, the 21st century's most ubiquitous and influential algorithm - the one developed by Google. Taking the two or three words that I have entered into their search box, and possibly incorporating some knowledge of my previous search history, the algorithm can scan billions of websites in its index and deliver relevant results almost instantaneously.

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