Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Written By James King

4 min read

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths - Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
social sciences

In a dazzlingly interdisciplinary work, acclaimed author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths show how the algorithms used by computers can also untangle very human questions. They explain how to have better hunches and when to leave things to chance, how to deal with overwhelming choices and how best to connect with others. From finding a spouse to finding a parking spot, from organizing your inbox to understanding the workings of memory, Algorithms to Live By transforms the wisdom of computer science into strategies for human living. - Amazon Product Description

In a nutshell description

Algorithms to Live By humanises the world of computer science by introducing some of the core concepts to non-programmers while applying them to real world examples. At the same time this book shows how human decision making can be deconstructed into common problems with reliable and ‘objectively’ better solutions.

A good example is an introduction to the concept of the Optimal Stopping Problem - a maths-based approach to finding the optimum time to stop doing something due to diminishing returns - by applying it to the ‘problem’ of choosing a spouse (Spend the first 37 percent of your search meeting people and then be ready to propose to the first person who is better than anyone you have met so far).

It’s a really clever concept for a book. To get the most out of it, my advice is to read it rather than listen (as I did) so you can really get your head around the concepts described and reread the more complicated parts when necessary.

Quotes to make you think

“Don’t always consider all your options. Don’t necessarily go for the outcome that seems best every time. Make a mess on occasion. Travel light. Let things wait. Trust your instincts and don’t think too long. Relax. Toss a coin. Forgive, but don’t forget. To thine own self be true.”

“To try and fail is at least to learn; to fail to try is to suffer the inestimable loss of what might have been.”

“Sorting something that you will never search is a complete waste; searching something you never sorted is merely inefficient.”

Why I love this book

I love Algorithms To Live By on two levels. As someone who works with data, I use programming languages without considering myself a programmer. Therefore, there are many gaps in my conceptual knowledge. This book introduced me to ideas, such as sorting theories, that have given me a better foundation to develop my technical skills.

On another level, I love the idea of building habits based on rules to take some of the cognitive pressure of deciding what to do next. Algorithms To Live By offers an intelligent, thought-provoking and humorous way to look at how you live your life and how to improve it.

Read this book if…

You are a non-technical person interested in the core principles of computer science, or a technical person who wants to geek out about computer science concepts applied to non-typical (aka real life) settings.

What others say about it

“Compelling and entertaining, Algorithms to Live By is packed with practical advice about how to use time, space, and effort more efficiently. And it’s a fascinating exploration of the workings of computer science and the human mind. Whether you want to optimize your to-do list, organize your closet, or understand human memory, this is a great read.” — Charles Duhigg

“In this remarkably lucid, fascinating, and compulsively readable book, Christian and Griffiths show how much we can learn from computers. We’ve all heard about the power of algorithms―but Algorithms to Live By actually explains, brilliantly, how they work, and how we can take advantage of them to make better decisions in our own lives.” — Alison Gopnik

Some good further reading/watching/listening

Watch co-author Tom Griffiths speaking at TEDxSydney.

Watch authors Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths talking at Google.

Where to get it

About the authors

As well as co-authoring Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian is the author of The Most Human Human, which was named a Wall Street Journal bestseller, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and a New Yorker favorite book of the year. On writing this, I learned he has a book out this month (October 2020) called The Alignment Problem which we completely missed when compiling our list of five new books to read in October!

Tom Griffiths is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Princeton University, where he directs the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences. He has published more than 150 scientific papers on topics ranging from cognitive psychology to cultural evolution, and has received awards from the National Science Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, the American Psychological Association, and the Psychonomic Society, among others.

Publication Date

April 19, 2016

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