Book Review : Hello World (Hannah Fry)

Book review number three takes a look at Hannah Fry’s latest book, Hello World, which covers the world of algorithms and how they affect modern society.

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Title : Hello World

Author : Hannah Fry

The Blurb : You are accused of a crime. Who would you rather determined your fate – a human or an algorithm?

Key + : A brilliantly educational, yet simple overview of algorithms and how they affect the world around us, how the future stands to be impacted, and where everything could go wrong (if we let it). 

Key : The real life examples are imperative to the book and I feel there is something for everyone, yet interest may come and go across the chapters depending on personal interests. This is perhaps not a cover to cover read for everyone. 


How vital are algorithms to society, and what happens when the people using them step over the ‘creepy line’ between ethical and unethical use? If you don’t know, or just need reminding of how it can (and does) happen, then this book is a must read. And don’t worry about reading lines of code or mathematical equations, you will find very little of this in Hello World. Instead, Hannah Fry uses her skills as a mathematician and lecturer to simplify the complex world of algorithms by focussing on the applications across modern society, as opposed to how they are built.

What I particularly enjoyed about Hello World, is how Fry avoids favouring either side of the mankind vs robot argument. Instead, the book is broken down into chapters covering specific topics; medicine, cars, crime and so on, with the pros and cons of each being discussed, with scientific research and relevant examples. But Fry doesn’t sit on the fence either, instead her stance is one of understanding for both sides; where algorithms can cause harm, and where they can help. I found this approach to be incredibly refreshing as we often fall into the trap of reading one person’s narrative, designed solely to justify their own opinions. 

Moving on, it is safe to say that algorithms effectively run my world, with search engines and data playing a major role in both my professional and personal life, as is the case for many other people across the world. There is a good chance the examples of algorithms covered in Hello World will relate to you. For example, I was reminded of the time I dutifully followed my SatNav whilst holidaying in the Lake District and soon began ascending the UK’s steepest road. I checked Google Maps the next day and discovered the route was a totally unnecessary detour, with no obvious reason as to why. 

According to Fry, this is exactly the kind of narrow approach we often have towards algorithm based technology; we either blindly trust it or stay well clear where possible. But when it all goes ‘wrong’, we quickly blame the technology and dust our hands of any responsibility. And I feel this is the point of the book, as we have all been affected by an algorithm at some point in our lives. 

Naturally, there are mixed opinions on whether algorithms are good or bad for mankind, with some predicting the day will come when robots take over the world. Whilst this is unlikely to happen any time soon, there’s no denying that we often find ourselves at the mercy of algorithms, but most importantly (and often overlooked), those who develop and implement them. As Fry highlights, these algorithms are used to make decisions over life or death, but the final decisions often come down to the people tasked with overseeing the entire process or those who designed the algorithm in the first place.

Additionally, the book discusses the unavoidable fact that mistakes do happen, with algorithms being no exception. In fact, sometimes a human perspective can prove essential and once again Fry comes up trumps with a real life example of the nuclear missile incident of 1983, which without human intervention would likely have led to a nuclear war. 

On the other hand, we’re also invited to explore the idea that a human touch is not always the best go to, as we play a big part in the current ideas behind autonomous cars, something which ended in disaster when Uber trialled its driverless cars. This leads Fry to questioning whether an algorithm can be held responsible when its capacity is maxed out in this way, and whether or not the passenger can be considered as a last ditch solution when things go wrong. Can someone really be expected to go from inactive behind the wheel, to taking control of a moving vehicle in an emergency situation, within a matter of seconds? The issues facing the implementation of algorithms in certain areas of society are clear, as there are questions as to whether the necessary procedures and infrastructures are in place allowing the world to be truly dependant on algorithms.

Regardless of how we feel about algorithms, they are quickly becoming ubiquitous in the modern world, with the application of said technology likely affecting your life in more ways than one. From online shopping, to attending an appointment at the doctors or scrolling mindlessly through a social media feed, there are algorithms ticking over in the background. So perhaps it’s about time we do some learning of our own, with Hello World being a great way to start.

Favourite line(s) : 

If data is the new gold, then we’ve been living in the Wild West.

It’s about asking if an algorithm is having a net benefit on society.

Score : 8/10

Verdict : If you live in the modern world, this book is for you.  


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