More and more of modern life is steered by algorithms. But what are they exactly, and who
is behind them? Tom Whipple follows the trail
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013
There are many reasons to believe that film stars earn too much. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie once hired an entire train to travel from London to Glasgow. Tom Cruise’s daughter Suri is reputed to have a wardrobe worth $400,000. Nicolas Cage once paid $276,000 for a dinosaur head. He would have got it for less, but he was bidding against Leonardo DiCaprio.HT: Abnormal Returns
Nick Meaney has a better reason for believing that the stars are overpaid: his algorithm tells him so. In fact, he says, with all but one of the above actors, the studios are almost certainly wasting their money. Because, according to his movie-analysis software, there are only three actors who make money for a film. And there is at least one A-list actress who is worth paying not to star in your next picture.
The headquarters of Epagogix, Meaney’s company, do not look like the sort of headquarters from which one would confidently launch an attack on Hollywood royalty. A few attic rooms in a shared south London office, they don’t even look as if they would trouble Dollywood. But my meeting with Meaney will be cut short because of another he has, with two film executives. And at the end, he will ask me not to print the full names of his analysts, or his full address. He is worried that they could be poached.
Worse though, far worse, would be if someone in Hollywood filched his computer. It is here that the iconoclasm happens. When Meaney is given a job by a studio, the first thing he does is quantify thousands of factors, drawn from the script. Are there clear bad guys? How much empathy is there with the protagonist? Is there a sidekick? The complex interplay of these factors is then compared by the computer to their interplay in previous films, with known box-office takings. The last calculation is what it expects the film to make. In 83% of cases, this guess turns out to be within $10m of the total. Meaney, to all intents and purposes, has an algorithm that judges the value—or at least the earning power—of art.
To explain how, he shows me a two-dimensional representation: a grid in which each column is an input, each row a film. "Curiously," Meaney says, "if we block this column…" With one hand, he obliterates the input labelled "star", casually rendering everyone from Clooney to Cruise, Damon to De Niro, an irrelevancy. "In almost every case, it makes no difference to the money column."
"For me that’s interesting. The first time I saw that I said to the mathematician, ‘You’ve got to change your program—this is wrong.’ He said, ‘I couldn’t care less—it’s the numbers.’" There are four exceptions to his rules. If you hire Will Smith, Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, you seem to make a return. The fourth? As far as Epagogix can tell, there is an actress, one of the biggest names in the business, who is actually a negative influence on a film. "It’s very sad for her," he says. But hers is a name he cannot reveal.
Algorithms decide what we are recommended on Amazon, what films we are offered on Netflix.
IF YOU TAKE the Underground north from Meaney’s office, you will pass beneath the housing estates of south London. Thousands of times every second, above your head, someone will search for something on Google. It will be an algorithm that determines what they see; an algorithm that is their gatekeeper to the internet. It will be another algorithm that determines what adverts accompany the search—gatekeeping does not pay for itself.
Sometimes, newspapers warn us of their creeping, insidious influence; they are the mysterious sciencey bit of the internet that makes us feel websites are stalking us—the software that looks at the e-mail you receive and tells the Facebook page you look at that, say, Pizza Hut should be the ad it shows you. Some of those newspaper warnings themselves come from algorithms. Crude programs already trawl news pages, summarise the results, and produce their own article, by-lined, in the case of Forbes magazine, "By Narrative Science".
Others produce their own genuine news. On February 1st, the Los Angeles Times website ran an article that began "A shallow magnitude 3.2 earthquake was reported Friday morning." The piece was written at a time when quite possibly every reporter was asleep. But it was grammatical, coherent, and did what any human reporter writing a formulaic article about a small earthquake would do: it went to the US Geological Survey website, put the relevant numbers in a boilerplate article, and hit send. In this case, however, the donkey work was done by an algorithm....MUCH MORE