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Home » How Algorithms Shape Our World: Kevin Slavin (Transcript)

How Algorithms Shape Our World: Kevin Slavin (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Kevin Slavin’s talk titled “How Algorithms Shape Our World” at TED conference.

Kevin Slavin’s talk “How Algorithms Shape Our World” explores the pervasive influence of algorithms on various aspects of life, from the financial markets to personal environments. He discusses how algorithms are not just tools for processing information but have become active agents in shaping reality, from the design of buildings to the dynamics of the stock market.

Slavin highlights the role of algorithms in the financial sector, emphasizing their reliance on speed and how this has led to significant physical changes, such as the hollowing out of buildings for server space and the construction of a fiber optic cable between New York and Chicago to gain microseconds of advantage.

He points out the unseen, often misunderstood impact of algorithms, illustrating this with examples like destination control elevators and the peculiar behaviors of algorithmic trading, which can lead to phenomena like the flash crash. The talk further delves into the concept of algorithmic efficiency reaching beyond the digital realm, influencing cultural and physical landscapes, such as the speculative positioning of servers across the globe for financial gain.

Slavin argues that these algorithms, which now co-exist with natural and human systems, should be considered a new form of nature. Ultimately, his talk serves as a prophecy about the deep and irreversible integration of algorithmic logic into the fabric of our world, urging a reevaluation of their role and impact.

Listen to the audio version here:


This is a photograph by the artist Michael Najjar, and it’s real in the sense that he went to Argentina to take the photo. However, it’s also a fiction; there’s a lot of work that went into it after that. What he’s done is he’s actually reshaped digitally all of the contours of the mountains to follow the vicissitudes of the Dow Jones Index. So, what you see, that precipice, that high precipice with the valley, is the 2008 financial crisis. The photo was made when we were deep in the valley over there.

I don’t know where we are now. This is the Hang Seng Index for Hong Kong and similar topography, I wonder why. And this is art, right? This is metaphor. But I think the point is that this is a metaphor with teeth, and it’s with those teeth that I want to propose today that we rethink a little bit about the role of contemporary math, not just financial math, but math in general. That it’s transitioned from being something that we sort of extract and derive from the world to something that actually starts to shape it.

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