Discussion Points for Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Discussion Points for Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions


Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

Discussion Guidelines

  • Read the material before coming to class. You won’t be quizzed on it, but do it because it is the right thing to do.
  • Discussions will first occur in small groups.
    • As discussion occurs, respect and try to understand all comments made.
    • During the discussion, take brief notes about key ideas that emerge.
    • For each key idea, try to identify an example that illustrates the idea.
    • Make sure that everyone has a chance to speak.
    • Make sure each person can see everyone else.
    • Designate a person to speak on behalf of the group.
  • Summary discussion will occur with the whole class.
    • Designated speaker for each small group will synthesis group points.
    • Other team members can bring up or clarify group ideas.

Discussion Points


  1. How is the study of computer science (CS) relevant to a liberal arts college education?
  2. What aspects of CS may be less relevant or outside the scope of a liberal arts education?

Chapter 1

  1. In common language, what are the basic principles of optimal stopping?
  2. What is the dynamic behind the “Turkey Drop” phenomenon?
  3. What situations in your own life remind you of the “Turkey Drop” phenomenon?
  4. How is optimal stopping a fundamental issue in what it means to be alive?
  5. How can you apply the principle of optimal stopping to improve your own life?

Chapter 2

  1. What are some specific multi-arm bandits situations in your own life?
  2. Reflecting on the Explore/Exploit framework, and the tendency for a person’s network to diminish over time, how might you strategize to improve the quality of your life in the future?

Chapter 3

  1. What situations in human society are similar to debeaking chickens? What are some of the “beaks” in your own social networks?
  2. What are competitve team sports such as baseball or basketball, a “fight” or a “race”? What about other competitive environments?

Chapter 4

  1. Using the library shelving strategy as inspiration, what common campus environments could benefit from an LRU caching strategy?
  2. Have you found purposeful forgetting useful in your own life?

Chapter 5

  1. What are some examples of how you optimize your life based on predicting long vs. short length tasks?
  2. How can the principle of interrupt coalescing be applied to your life? Give a few concrete examples.

Chapter 6

  1. Using the notion of priors within the Bayesian context, when and how have you observed the impact of differences in individual perceptions of priors been noticeable in group decision making processes?
  2. What experiences in your life are similar to the “marshmallow test” and delayed gratification?

Chapter 7

  1. What are some examples of cross validation you have observed in real life?
  2. Have you observed or used regularization techniques in your own decision-making processes, or in group decisions?

Chapter 8

  1. The optimal path algorithm is called the Traveling Salesman Problem because of the time period in which it was identified and studied. What could it be called today and why?
  2. Lagrangian Relaxation refers to making permissable that which was prohibited. In your own life, have you grown to accept as permissible things that you once thought prohibited, accepting them now as only penalty? Have you considered things permissible in the past that you now consider prohibited?

Chapter 9

  1. Random sampling can be used to probe a collection of possible outcome to get a sense of what is more likely. How have you in your own life used sampling techniques to gain insight into situations? How can such approaches be scientific?
  2. Simulated Annealing attempts to find solutions by considering many different possible answers in early iterations toward finding a solution and then slowly restricting the search space in later iterations? Have you seen or used similar techniques in your own life?

Chapter 10

  1. In describing the Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin invited his readers to picture a “commons” of public lawn—available to be grazed by everyone’s livestock, but with finite capacity. In theory, all the villagers should graze only as many animals as would leave some grass for everyone. In practice, though, the benefits of grazing a little bit more than that accrue directly to you, while the harms seem too small to be of consequence. Yet if everyone follows this logic of using just slightly more of the commons than they should, a dreadful equilibrium results: a completely devastated lawn, and no grass for anyone’s livestock thereafter.

    Suppose that points earned on assignments in this course were combined and all individual grades were the same, the total points divided by the number of students (the average). How might this change your strategy for working on assignments? How is the tragedy of the commons an element in everyday life?
  2. From the book: The Vickrey auction is a “sealed bid” auction process. That is, every participant simply writes down a single number in secret, and the highest bidder wins. However, in a Vickrey auction, the winner ends up paying not the amount of their own bid, but that of the second-place bidder. That is to say, if you bid $25 and I bid $10, you win the item at my price: you only have to pay $10.

    How could Vickrey be applied to other common bidding events? How would it change the outcome?


  1. I firmly believe that the important things about humans are social in character and that relief by machines from many of our present demanding intellectual functions will finally give the human race time and incentive to learn how to live well together. - Merrill Flood

    Give some specific examples of how you can improve the life of others around you by practicing Computational Kindness.
  2. Reading this book, or not, did not affect your grade in the course. Assuming the content is useful, reading the book represents an important but not urgent activity, something that can enhance your life in the long term, but less so in the near term. What are the benefits and costs associated with reading the book, or not? If you find merit in the theory that your CS knowledge half-life is a few years, what do important but not urgent activities mean to you?