A Human Algorithm by Flynn Coleman

Thanks to the ongoing (and everlasting) saga of house renovations, I was sad to have to decline to review this book due to a lack of time and a general inability to stick to reading deadlines at the moment. I did however, offer to host an extract – because quite frankly, I’ve been fascinated by the subject ever since I read a book last year where the main character was AI, and the lines were so incredibly grey where humanity was concerned. It all seemed quite futuristic at the time, but then I began to look around me….

I really hope to read this soon! Enjoy!


A ground-breaking narrative on the urgency of ethically designed AI and a guidebook to reimagining life in the era of intelligent technology. The age of intelligent machines is upon us, and as we approach the end of human intellectual superiority, we as a species need to plan for a monumental shift. A Human Algorithm examines the immense impact intelligent technology will have on humanity. These machines, while challenging our personal beliefs and our socio-economic world order, also have the potential to transform our health and well-being, alleviate poverty and suffering, and reveal the mysteries of intelligence and consciousness.
International human rights attorney Flynn Coleman deftly argues that it is critical we instill values, ethics, and morals into our robots, algorithms, and other forms of AI. Equally important, we need to develop and implement laws, policies, and oversight mechanisms to protect us from tech’s insidious threats.
Ultimately, A Human Algorithm is a clarion call for building a more humane future and moving conscientiously into a new frontier of our own design.


We are becoming irreversibly reliant on computers and machines, using our human memory less, and cognitively offloading more of our tasks, problem-solving, and learning. Simple forms of AI are already present and influential—from talking to Siri, to browsing Netflix and Google, whose proprietary algorithms do everything from suggesting the next movie to watch or career to pursue, to designing video games and flying drones. Driverless cars will spawn driverless taxis, trains, and trucks, pilotless airplanes, autonomous drones that drop medicines and bombs; robots that can win chess matches, write poetry, and compose music that people believe was written by Bach are already realities.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that we will reach “technological singularity,” where machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence and comprehension, in less than thirty years (1). While some think it will happen much sooner, others in the debate argue that it is a hundred years in our future, if it will even happen at all. No matter your stance on the timeline, the fact is that these technologies are now advancing at an extraordinarily fast clip. AI algorithms are already omnipresent in our daily lives.

Many of us are willfully ignorant about how much sway AI algorithms already have over our decision-making, or how we are now partially existing in virtual worlds. Consider how much of your life is spent online. Consider, too, all of the data and personal information we already hand over to bots and companies. Digital devices and online platforms are ubiquitous. We are losing control over our technology, which creates enormous potential for malicious use. Our privacy is already compromised; underinformed political leaders are incapable of regulating technology companies (2), much less understanding the science itself; and the complexity of the issues cannot be solved solely with algorithms or by those who craft them.

We are merging with our machines, delegating more decision making to them without acknowledging how much our own cognitive abilities are becoming enmeshed with theirs. A 2015 study at Yale University, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that “people who search for information tend to conflate accessible knowledge with their own personal knowledge. (3)” In many cases Google is doing a significant amount of our “thinking” for us, and we subconsciously identify what we have searched for as a part of our actual memory (4). Have you ever been browsing Netflix, only to notice that you have selected a movie with the same actor who was in the last film you watched? Did you think you chose the film, or did the film in fact choose you? Of course, this was no coincidence. The movie was already preselected for you, based on your viewing history. The same goes for why your Facebook feed seems uncannily simpatico with your pre-existing preferences and viewpoints. Have you shopped online or searched for a product, only for it to appear shortly thereafter in a Google, Facebook, or Instagram ad? Did you click on it again? Did you buy it this time? Or did it influence you to purchase the item in the real world at a physical store?

Whether you are deciding what shoes to purchase, which friends to “friend,” or whom to vote for, an algorithm is involved. When the police decide how to allocate resources, when an insurance company determines your premiums, when someone lands on the “no fly” list, an algorithm is involved (5). Today an algorithm can predict your sexual orientation with startling accuracy (better than humans) by looking at an image of your face (6). While we are catching on to Google ads and Netflix recommendations, which seem harmless enough to many of us, are we registering just how successful machine intelligence already is at influencing the estimated 35,000 “remotely conscious” decisions you, and every adult, make every single day (7)? I believe we are not. Our elected leaders are not. We are completely unprepared for the near term impact and consequences of this smart technology. And, as I will argue in this book, despite a well-intentioned fledgling “algorithmic accountability movement,” (8) we are alarmingly unready for the reality of powerful AI that reaches conclusions and decisions independent from human intervention.

Unless we deliberately intervene, AI will not develop an algorithm that values human concerns. I hope to convince you that we must acknowledge the science, face our technological fears, debate our present and future human and civil rights, and marshal the moral courage to create intelligent machines that reflect our humanity in all of its diversity. AI is changing the very way we approach science, and its successful development requires a combination of proficiencies, from neuroscience and psychology to mathematics and engineering. Modern computing power has begun to unlock what has been holding AI back for decades. The algorithmic clock is ticking. What we do today, who we are, and who we become will be mirrored in the AI we build.

Taken from A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence is Redefining Who We Are by Flynn Coleman, out now from Melville House UK

About the Author

Flynn Coleman is a writer, international human rights attorney, public speaker, professor, and social innovator. She has worked with the United Nations, the United States federal government, and international corporations and human rights organizations around the world.

A Human Algorithm is her first book. She lives in New York City.

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