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By Haris Sahovic, Monash University

In human history, mathematics has never been as important as it is today. It has a direct impact on the majority of our everyday lives, as citizens and consumers. Every technological device uses multiple advanced algorithms: pricing models, optimisation functions and cryptography are everywhere, shaping our reality. And it is just getting started.

As consumers, it is important to understand what is happening, why, and how. The prices of the goods we are buying are determined by different mathematical methods, based on principles of microeconomics and optimisations. In the majority of cases, these are fairly simple methods. However, it is sometimes really complex, for instance for airfare pricing, where the price for the same ticket can vary by a factor of ten, depending of various parameters.

The transaction itself can depend on advanced mathematics. Credit cards, for example, are protected by prime numbers through cryptography and number theory. Other common products, such as seasrch engines, depend on mathematics and are becoming more and more important.

As citizens, it is primordial to understand the implications of these facts. If mathematics has an important impact on our society, it is important to perceive it, and be able to analyse it, especially when we consider what is happening right now. Indeed, if information technologies have reshaped our lives, emerging techniques, such as data science, artificial intelligence and nano-technologies will probably revolutionise our society in decades to come.

The fact that things such as self-driving cars, genome editing or artificial intelligence are seriously envisaged, and will probably happen soon, has to lead us to a collective reflection on the society we want to live in. What needs to be supervised? What legal framework should be developed? What should be the state’s role? These might seem quite theoretical questions, but they are essential: who is responsible if a self-driving car has an accident? What happens if a genome-edited baby is born with a genetic disease? Can artificial intelligence be impartial?

These are the kind of questions we, as a society, should be trying to answer. But to do so, a basic understanding of what is behind the technologies changing our lives has to exist. Being aware of the omnipresence of mathematics in our everyday life is a necessity, and understanding how it is reshaping our society is crucial: on it depends the world we live in, and will live in.