Automate This (2012) by Christopher Steiner looks at how algorithms and how data science is dramatically altering various fields. Steiner looks at algorithms that are used on Wall Street, to analyse people, compose music and to drive cars. The book has some fascinating information that is well told but it’s also somewhat naive.
Steiner first looks at how automated trading has taken over financial markets and now computers are responsible for 60% or more of trades. Steiner looks in particular at Thomas Petterfy who established the firm Interactive Brokers and was one of the pioneers of algorithmic trading on Wall Street. The chapter on Petterfy is really excellent and makes the whole book worthwhile. Other sections on Wall Street are interesting but not as good as this part.
After covering Wall Street the book meanders over a history of math and algorithms that is somewhat bolted on. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the book.
Steiner looks at computers selecting music and composing music in a really fascinating section that looks at how creative fields can be turned into algorithms. Algorithms for automating medical diagnosis, chess and other fields are also covered and reading about them is fascinating. Steiner also looks at the potential for computers to look at data for spying and spends little time considering the worrying possibilities of mass surveillance.
Steiner also spends time on stating how more people should be taught math and engineering and fewer who are should go and work on Wall Street. It’s an opinion that has some validity but the book would be better off without it. The sections covering the remarkable developments in technology stand by themselves.
Despite the cheerleading the book is very much worth reading, the sections that cover Petterfy and the development of algorithmic trading and computer generated music are superb.