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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.
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By Laurent Bourgault-Roy on 01-08-17
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.
31 of 33 people found this review helpful
By Stephen on 10-02-16
A fascinating and startling look at where big data is blind
This book is totally worth the listen for the intro and first chapter alone. It's very well-written and easy to follow, and manages to tell clear stories about how the software we use to assess teacher performance or insurance risk is all to often encoded with the prejudices and blind spots of the people who make it. It shows how that is already damaging equality and democracy, and warns of areas where it may get worse.
As a software designer, the one thing I would have loved from this book would be a little more depth about how software products might avoid these pitfalls. However, I'm probably coming at this book with unfair expectations, and it's likely a subject I just need to research more deeply.
Overall, if you enjoy podcasts like Freakonomics and Planet Money, you'll probably love this. Happy I listened!
8 of 8 people found this review helpful