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Algorithm as Art

Ben Johnson and Aparna Alluri Apr 2, 2015
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Imagine an auction where you could buy algorithms, or code. Like the one the dating website OkCupid uses for calculating compatibility between two people. If you think that’s too far-fetched, you’re in for a surprise.

New York’s Cooper Hewitt Museum recently held an auction exactly like the one described above: algorithms in all forms—from code scribbled on paper to a thumb drive—were represented in artistic ways, ready to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

“The Algorithm Auction,” as it was known, was the work of Ruse Laboratories, which describes itself as the “preeminent gallery of pure code.” That is, it’s a company that wants to get people to see code as art—art that can be auctioned. Achieving that goal, according to some observers, would increase the popularity of coding, as well as attract more money in the form of philanthropic donations.

“When you read the code as a computer scientist you can see the brushstrokes and the flourishes and the trills that the technologist uses when they craft what they are creating,” said Benjamin Gleitzman, one of the co-founders of Ruse Labs, speaking at the auction.  “I think it’s time the general population understands the beauty of code.”

One of the hottest items on the auction block was, in fact, OkCupid’s compatibility calculator.

“Because our match algorithm can be represented … as a formula, not simply lines of code, we represented it as a piece of art showing two people falling in love on different ends of the world, being connected by that formula,” said co-founder Chris Coyne, who attended the auction.