How Big Data Increases Inequality And Threatens Democracy
By Cathy O’Neil
Weapons Of Math Destruction book cover. Credit: Penguin Books.
The book in three words?
Gripping - Wise - Necessary
What is it about?
With a title like Weapons Of Math Destruction, it’s easy to conclude that this book will be filled with complex, hard-to-navigate, intimidating language and equations. However, it cannot be stressed enough that you don’t need to be a number genius or data scientist for this book to be more than worthwhile. Data scientist Cathy O’Neil takes the complex and its effect on society and makes it captivatingly digestible. O’Neil paints a picture of the ‘Big Data’ era, that we live in today. An era where our data and what is done with it affects our life experiences.
O’Neil explains how ‘weapons of math destruction’ referred to as WMDs for short, are terrifying mathematical tools that widen the financial gap, fuel injustice, and feast on inequality. In the book, WMDs are identified as mathematical models that are opaque, have a large scale, inflict damage, and often have a feedback loop. O’Neil carefully includes a variety of examples of these monstrous models and algorithms, using them as building blocks for the reader's understanding. Some of these WMDs include predatory ads that target the vulnerable and governmental policies that use crude data analysis to punish good teachers. You are taken on a journey through the WMDs that lie in marketing, the criminal justice system, employment, finances, elections, insurance pricing, and more.
What can be done to stop weapons of math destruction?
O’Neil makes it clear that data models are not always bad, but when not dealt with correctly they can all too easily become dangerous WMDs that feed into each other. In Weapons Of Math Destruction, powerful ideas for demolishing these weapons are put forward. Some of these include: placing fairness over profit, changing laws, shifting what is viewed as a success, demanding transparency from mathematical models, and conducting thorough audits of them too.
Who is this book for?
Weapons Of Math Destruction holds important teachings for us all. It is an essential read for those whose work uses mathematical models and algorithms - whether it's creating them, relying on them, or both.
What do members of The Camelot Network think?
“This book very clearly articulates the significant dangers of blindly applying Big Data and AI techniques to solve our business and societal challenges. It unearths the inherent risks of applying the outputs of a computer model without really thinking things through and importantly having very effective feedback loops to ensure algorithms learn and continue learning. Highly applicable to the insurance industry as we lean more and more on models to underwrite, price, evaluate claims and renew policies. This eye-opening, example-filled book is a must for anyone wanting to automate what we humans currently do. ‘The computer says.....don't read this book.’”
To sum it up:
Weapons Of Math Destruction is an essential read coming at a critical time. It acts as a teacher, investigator, protestor, and solution provider. The wide variety of examples, focusing on individual and mass stories prove that we are heading down a dangerous path. However, O’Neil’s hard work, awareness raising, and proposals for change show a glimmer of hope if those harnessing data and algorithms behave responsibly.
Want to know more?
Learn more about Weapons Of Math Destruction here.
Written by Chloe Allison