Ten equations that rule the world - could they work for you?

David Sumpter's The Ten Equations That Rule the World explains the maths that informs IT-driven finance, betting and social media companies. Could we all adopt these principles in our lives too?

shutterstock 385573399 09.10.20 ten equations that rule the world could they work for you nick booth
Shutterstock

Algorithms help the rich get richer through automated trading, and make the poor get poorer through online betting. Meanwhile self-esteem is stripped from our children, one Snapchat at a time, by social media publishers who take great pains to shield their own kids from such cynical exploitation. All this might make you rage at the calculating minds driving society’s race to the bottom.

It doesn’t have to be like that, says Maths Professor David Sumpter in a new book, The Ten Equations That Rule The World. By examining these cunning calculations Sumpter aims to let daylight in on these dark arts and empower us. Understanding the equations probably won’t make us rich or influential, but it might bring us the most elusive human resources of all: confidence, health and wellbeing. Or so he claims.

Can a self-help maths book really ‘increase your chance of success’ and help you see through scaremongering?

It did whet my appetite for more knowledge on this subject. I read some chapters several times and I’m no closer to achieving my ambition to command an army of machines. However, I am less nervous about the automated class system that’s developing now. But only slightly.

Each chapter sets the scene for the equation under discussion with an anecdote. So, in that vein, here is my anecdote. I once worked in a betting shop and was horrified at seeing the poor stripped of their money by the rich.

So Chapter 1, The Betting Equation, makes a horrible introduction. But it gets better.  

Sumpter uses betting to illustrate how the budding maths modeller can assemble life’s variables, make assumptions, and create models. Then you sanity check your original assumptions using Logistic Regression, which improves your original guess time with incremental corrections. This is the basis of how you make machines learn to make better predictions. Gives you a good overview of the subject if you need to bluff your way through a meeting.

Ready to start an online trading system yet? Me neither, but I do feel like I’ve inched closer to understanding.

Can we work out a day to day calculation like – is this book going to be any use to you? Let’s assume you are 90 per cent more likely than me to pick things up quickly. Then - if I understand the book correctly – we must assign a value of 0.9 to multiply against the other – as yet unidentified – variables of your choice, that will determine whether this is a good use of your time.

I think what I’m trying to say is that each chapter explains the relationship between all the shifting values that underpin elusive human qualities, such as Judgement (Chapter 2), Confidence (3) and Skill (4).

Some might want to skip to the ‘money’ chapters that describe how global corporations use equations to weigh up Influencers, Advertising and the Market.

For me, Sumpter’s best work was the 15 years he spent in anthropology, watching animals and calculating formulae to describe their behaviour. There is something for everyone here though.

Are you, for example, unsettled by artificial intelligence? If so Sumpter’s chapter on The Learning Equation could really help.

It describes how three Google engineers helped its subsidiary YouTube to become profitable by adapting the Learning Equation in order to ‘optimise’ our YouTube ‘watch time’.

They had to work out what material we like and cue it up, in order to keep us watching. So Paul Covington, Jay Adams and Emre Sargin created ‘The Funnel’, using neural networking techniques. This simple story exemplifies – in an easy digest – one of the most important principles of artificial intelligence. Which is something few explainers are able to pull off.

Sumpter shows how maths allows you to assess the value of footballers and whether social media can rig the American election. On current form, his predictions seem wildly wrong about the value of French international footballer, Paul Pogba. But he’s better on dogma. Sumpter was judged a trusted source for a US Senate Committee that was investigating the American election.

‘I don’t believe that politics is decided by political advertising on Facebook and fake news,’ says Sumpter, ‘It is caused by an increasing inequality between those who know the code and those who don’t.’

The book is an attempt to empower people who are left impotently raging at the constant pitiless automation of our lives, where machines make snap judgements about our health and credit worthiness, while social media makes everyone miserable.

In an ideal world, we’d all have a machine we could boss around, but power is all concentrated in a few hands. Worse still, the priorities of top mathematicians seem to have changed. Mathematics used to be synonymous with philosophies both Western and Eastern. The likes of PythagorasPlato and Aristotle used their phenomenal talents to help humanity to examine its views, questioned the immortality of the soul and pioneered deductive reasoning. Now they’re helping horrible corporations to control us.

‘I think that there is a way which maths controls our life and this is both on a personal level. We need to sharpen our thinking. And it is on a society level. A small number of people do have that edge,’ says Sumpter.

Sumpter’s gift is to witness events and interpret them into the language of maths. The most illuminating sections were related to anthropology. Ants use two pheromones to create a system that describes the likely yield from following a particular food trail. Each pheromone is a positive sign, but one is powerful and decays rapidly while the other is less pungent but with a longer half life. Used in combination the pheromones can send a coded message, which works to create an intelligence report. Which ant worked out that system? These ant algorithms are a hallmark of insect genius – but Sumpter is a hero for cracking their code and explaining it to the rest of humanity.

Anyone can be a ‘Disruptor’ these days. It’s the Demystifiers that could empower the masses.

Reading this book is a bit like that moment when the underground train driver comes on the tannoy and explains why we’ve all been stuck in the dark for ten minutes. You’re no less powerless but a bit less fearful now you’ve got a vague idea of what’s going on.

“I’m glad I have rescued you from the dark,” says Sumpter.