Weapons of Math Destruction

  • by Cathy O'Neil
  • Narrated by Cathy O'Neil
  • 6 hrs and 23 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life - and threaten to rip apart our social fabric
We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly the decisions that affect our lives - where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance - are being made not by humans but by mathematical models. In theory this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated.
But as Cathy O'Neil reveals in this urgent and necessary book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable even when they're wrong. Most troublingly, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can't get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he's then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a "toxic cocktail for democracy". Welcome to the dark side of big data.
Tracing the arc of a person's life, O'Neil exposes the black-box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. These "weapons of math destruction" score teachers and students, sort résumés, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set paroles, and monitor our health.
O'Neil calls on modelers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and on policy makers to regulate their use. But in the end, it's up to us to become savvier about the models that govern our lives. This important book empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change.


Audible Editor Reviews

"Though terrifying, it's a surprisingly fun read: O'Neil's vision of a world run by algorithms is laced with dark humor and exasperation - like a modern-day Dr. Strangelove or Catch-22." (Steven Strogatz, Cornell University, author of The Joy of x)


What the Critics Say

"Weapons of Math Destruction opens the curtain on algorithms that exploit people and distort the truth while posing as neutral mathematical tools. This book is wise, fierce, and desperately necessary." (Jordan Ellenberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of How Not to Be Wrong )
"Weapons of Math Destruction shines invaluable light on the invisible algorithms and complex mathematical models used by government and big business." (Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Save Yourself Some Time and Read A Pamphlet Instead

While the author makes some compelling points about the use of big data and how people can get caught up in "pernicious feedback loops," understand going in that she is an Occupy Wall Street sympathizer and has a strong left wing stance. Unfortunately I didn't understand this before my purchase and could have saved myself a lot of time by just reading a pamphlet instead.

While I would consider myself a centrist and am open to a lot of the arguments made by the left, some of this was just hard to stomach. (To be clear, she makes some valid points and gives the listener some interesting things to think about). The author is clearly out to prove a point about how the poor, minorities, and women are being kept down by The Man, which is now essentially labeled as "weapons of math destruction" or WMD's. The answer as usual is bigger government, more regulation & oversight, and socialist tendencies in order to provide justice.

In my view, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle and not on the fringes. If you're an OWS sympathizer, voted for Bernie, or think that capitalism stinks, this book is for you. If not, buyer beware and understand beforehand that you're going to be challenged to listen to 8+ hours of how everyone except the wealthy and privileged are being oppressed by WMD's.

Also, her narration is not the best. Kind of tedious at times.
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- R

More are US social problems that WMD

A WMD, or weapon of math destruction, are usage of algorithm that end up being discriminatory toward some people, or that cause problem with their wide scale deployment. For example, an algorithm that identify poor people can deny them services that help them, making them poorer. The algorithm prediction become self-fulfilling and prevent people from improving their condition.  

The premise of the book is very good, and there are indeed a lot of good example of how misuse of big data algorithms can wreak havoc among society. The problem is that the author indignation push her away from what should have been the main subject of the book. 

In the course of the book, the author raise a lot of recurring problem with WMD, like the "Flock of the feathers" generalization, the "self-fulfilling" prediction, the "discriminating proxy variable ", the "non-appealable conclusion" problem, the "non-measurable important factor". But those categories of problem, which, in my opinion, should have been the focus of the book, take a backseat toward the real subject of the book: how much the United State has social problems.

Each chapter is written to for denounce a specific social problem in the US, like predatory ads toward the poor, racial discrimination toward minority, terrible working hour among low wage workers, and so on. Some of those subjects are indeed caused by WMD. But for some, the link with the purported subject of the book is a bit strenuous. In some case, the author even exclaims "well, that has nothing to do with WMD of course". And a lot of time, WMD are not the root cause of the problem, they only exacerbate an existing one. 

That leave you with a book that is more like a classical sociology book denouncing the ill of the American society, with some talk about big data sprinkled on top. If, like me, you are not an American, you may feel a bit left out by that book. This is a shame, because by refocusing the book on the generic problem caused by WMD that I described above, the book could have had a much broader appeal. Don't get me wrong: The problem O Neil talk about ARE important social problem. But they are very specific to her own country, and the militant tone can become grating. I felt at time that the author was not explaining to me how WMD work and how to deal with them, but was rather trying to force her opinion of how the world should be over me. She was dictating me how I should think, rather than helping me shape my own opinion.

In the end, I would have preferred a more objective tone and a better focus on WMD themselves, with conclusion that can be applied more broadly to everyone, not just US citizens.
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- Laurent Bourgault-Roy

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-06-2016
  • Publisher: Random House Audio