Cathy O’Neil on Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Threatens Democracy

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Posted on: September 25, 2019 / Last Modified: September 25, 2019

Cathy O’Neil is a math Ph. D. from Harvard and a data-scientist who hopes to someday have a better answer to the question, “what can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?” In the meantime, she wrote a seminal book titled Weapons of Math Destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. In my view, this is a must-read book for anyone who thinks that algorithms are by definition a fair and unbiased way to produce a given result. As O’Neil notes in her TED Talk: “the era of blind faith in big data must end.” (Yuval Harari calls this belief a new techno religion – aka dataism.)

During this 90 min interview with Cathy O’Neil, we cover a variety of interesting topics such as: Cathy’s path to and love of Math; Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism and why we don’t count the dead With God On Our Side; how and why she became a hedge-fund quant; trusting and fearing the authority of math; why her book is titled Weapons of Math Destruction; Andrew “Boz” Bosworth’s ugly memo that Facebook’s actions were ‘de facto good’ – even if they led to deaths; Mark Zuckerberg’s good for the world but not good for Facebook email; the inherent biases and flaws of PredPol and other Minority Report type of predictive software; AI and the singularity; why intelligence is more than information retrieval; techno-solutionism and why technology is not enough; ethics and accountability; a Hippocratic oath for data scientists and engineers; why I believe that Instagram is among the worst weapons of math destruction; why technology is a magnifying mirror.

My favorite quotes that I will take away from Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction are:

“Algorithms are opinions embedded in code”

“Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination. And that’s something only humans can provide.”

As always you can listen to or download the audio file above or scroll down and watch the video interview in full. To show your support you can write a review on iTunesmake a direct donation or become a patron on Patreon.

Who is Cathy O’Neil?

Cathy O’Neil earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at the MIT math department, and a professor at Barnard College where she published a number of research papers in arithmetic algebraic geometry. She then switched over to the private sector, working as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis, and then for RiskMetrics, a risk software company that assesses risk for the holdings of hedge funds and banks. She left finance in 2011 and started working as a data scientist in the New York start-up scene, building models that predicted people’s purchases and clicks. She wrote Doing Data Science in 2013 and launched the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia in 2014. She is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View and wrote the book Weapons of Math Destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. She recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company.

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