Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Faith in Data and Algorithms

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School reviewed a new book by Cathy O’Neil:

Most of us, unless we’re insurance actuaries or Wall Street quantitative analysts, have only a vague notion of algorithms and how they work. But they actually affect our daily lives by a considerable amount. Algorithms are a set of instructions followed by computers to solve problems. The hidden algorithms of Big Data might connect you with a great music suggestion on Pandora, a job lead on LinkedIn or the love of your life on Match.com.

These mathematical models are supposed to be neutral. But former Wall Street quant Cathy O’Neil, who had an insider’s view of algorithms for years, believes that they are quite the opposite. In her book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, O’Neil says these WMDs are ticking time-bombs that are well-intended but ultimately reinforce harmful stereotypes, especially of the poor and minorities, and become “secret models wielding arbitrary punishments.”

This article is striking for its summary of how dependent we’ve become on opaque algorithms we know very little about. The developers of these applications treat them as proprietary, and resist any sort of public or regulatory scrutiny. The combination of little oversight and wide use is, to put it mildly, quite terrifying. I will absolutely be reading O’Neil’s book.