Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

Weapons of Math Destruction - Cathy O'Neil

Are you curious about how the Big Data economy is ruling and manipulating everything around us? Here you will find out the causes and consequences of this new technology.

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Whether you are a worker or a hirer, a teacher or a student, have you ever wondered that maybe your choices are no longer yours? Can numbers manipulate absolutely everything?

As much as it may sound like a conspiracy theory, it is the absolute truth! Nowadays, simple algorithms determine one's life and can turn it upside down.

The book Weapons of Math Destruction exposes the reality that we don't see, except for a select few, and how numbers can be biased when commanded by humans, generating oppression.

"Ignorance is a blessing", and closing our eyes to these minuses that happen around us is easier and more comfortable, isn't it? But if you decide to take the red pill and wake up to this reality of algorithms and data security, keep reading the summary!

The book “Weapons of Math Destruction”

With 342 pages divided into 12 parts, we have in our hands a story not only of the author's experience but of the current events that ponder on the human being. Going over the use of algorithms not only for sales but in various aspects of our lives.

Published in 2016, it has become one of the biggest bestsellers in the field and seeks to transparent the numbers that govern our systems today.

Who is Cathy O'Neil?

Besides being a mathematician and scientist, the American Catherine Helen O'Neil was a great activist in the movement for social and economic equality. She had a diverse and extensive professional journey, between teaching and holding important positions in large companies.

Finally, through her experiences, she became an author and wrote one of her greatest successes, the book Weapons of Math Destruction.

Who should read “Weapons of Math Destruction”?

This field englobes society in its entirety, so understanding the forces that try to control your life and using them to your advantage, can be of great utility.

So whether you are a student or an employee, a teacher or a businessman, you can use the contents of this book in different but essential ways, because everyone is affected on a scale and it is up to us to reverse its use.

What can I learn from “Weapons of Math Destruction”

  • What are WMDs;
  • What types of mathematical models generate the algorithms and how they are used;
  • Problems that Big Data brings in various areas of life for the poorest while cheating the richest;
  • How predatory advertisements benefit from inequality;
  • Politics and social networks within the data network.

What are the new problems that originated from the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Every beginning of a technological explosion changes the way we live and consequently the way we adapt. Initially, only the positive parts were seen and extolled, but, as we know, they are also embedded with major problems, one of them being massive pollution and the greenhouse effect.

This time in the fourth industrial revolution, our problem lies in the use of these new technologies. It is all so new we still do not understand how harmful and full of prejudices it can be.

In the book, we see how it all started, the scoring of individuals through models, called by the author Weapons of Mathematical Destruction, or WMDs. These processes added to the Big Data economy have taken over every aspect of our lives, even the simplest.

They control what people see on the internet, and generate data for companies, colleges, banks, and more. The problem with this "facility" is the unfair and discriminatory way it is applied, even without knowing it we end up inferring prejudice through numbers.

After all, do we all know how this algorithm works? Of course not! Only a few know how they function. This creates a basic problem that many entrepreneurs know, where is the feedback?

If we users don't know why we were put into a certain box or pattern, they can't give feedback, and so even if there are errors in the program it will never correct itself as the cycle continues.

How do these models work?

Models always have an objective in mind, defined by their creators, and to obtain favorable results they must maintain constant contact with their object of study. They are nothing more than simplifications of our reality, trying to bring common patterns within a large number.

Sounds simple and effective, doesn't it? Then what is the problem with these models?

When applied to simple and direct things, as observed in the book, such as fire alarms, the indicator is more than efficient, because they need a cloud of smoke to be triggered and have their objectives achieved. However, adding humans to the equation generates a more complex and not yet calculable factor.

Our emotions, morals, the complexity of interactions, and much more are non-computable exceptions within mathematics. How then will these models know when to be fairer and less "cold"?

Although I do not know this answer at present, these WMDs are considered harmful influences from three intrinsic characteristics: opacity, scale, and damage. With this, the author asks questions that will make us understand these characteristics better.

  1. Even if the user is aware of his or her participation in the model, how transparent is the model in its analysis of data relevance?
  2. Does the model work against the individual? Does it alter or damage lives?
  3. Does it gain scale? That is, is it harmless, acting in small proportions, or does it grow exponentially to the point of interfering with the lives of many people?

What areas of our lives do algorithms interfere with?

We have seen so far how numbers can become something harmful depending on some characteristics, one of them being the use of proxies, information that approximates reality and therefore does not calculate the exceptions and feelings as explained before.

So how exactly will these WMDs decide some aspects of your life? Let's look at some examples below!

Entering universities

Many students aspire to enter universities all around the country, regardless of their origin and wealth. But why would these factors be important? The simplest answer is that these traits are now used to determine who gets into them or not!

The moment rankings determined which were the best and worst colleges, the whole system changed. By using different weights for unexplained data, they force education to follow a standard and consequently to be plastered to a model the universities barely understand.

This generates affliction from professors being fired for unfair reasons, deans who find themselves locked into a formula they cannot achieve, and students who must fit the extreme results they demand.

From the rich to the working class, we are all trying to fit in from a WMD, that to fit in will be saddled with debt. They are all part, as so mentioned in the book, of an arms race. Win none and fight all!

Penitentiary Justice

Data processing is so big that this method has even reached the security area, influencing police and the legal process.

As a means of decreasing robberies, thefts, and frivolous infractions such as drunk driving and drug use, systems are used to observe the frequency where these situations occur.

They generally lead to peripheral locations, because disturbance crimes recur in the same area, while the more serious ones are more dispersed.e

This generates more arrests filling the prison system with authors of smaller crimes. This automatically connects the localization with the crimes committed.

Then they start to search and inspect more and more people who have never committed offenses just because of the external environment they are in. It doesn't matter what you have done, but it does matter where you live and who surrounds you.

Meanwhile, white-collar crimes that involve billions are unpunished and almost untouchable, because if they sink many people fall with them, an argument not possessed by the less favored.

Acquiring a job

Here we see a mode of labor exploitation, as they try to achieve greater efficiency with the lowest cost possible.

This mentality creates work schedules that suck all the energy out of a worker with unrealistic and unsatisfactory schedules, affecting mainly cafeteria workers - the well-known burnout.

Besides this fact, there is the hiring process with questionnaires, applying pre-analyzed questions that depending on the answer A, B, or C determine a person's entire value and effectiveness. Something that many times is not even explained to be contested or learned by both the individual and the method used.

This causes losses for the company that may lose a valuable employee, as well as for the other side that does not understand the reasons for not being selected.

Obtaining credit at banks

In the old days' bankers, themselves committed injustice and prejudice by validating loans only for those who walked the same cycle as him or dressed more appropriately. Today came a fairer way, where algorithms saw what that person's financial life was like, whether they paid or owed.

However, instead of holding the standard to look singular, the same prison method was applied here. Now, for living or hanging around people who didn't pay, your credit went down too!

The use of e-scores began to dominate, what you watched, what you bought, everything affected the total scores you had, determining also what was shown to you - even loans.

On the one hand, at first, these scores were fair, because you understood what made them go up, such as paying on time, but then they took the same obscure and uncertain course as WMDs.

How can social networks interfere in politics?

Before answering that question, let's look at the total picture of how social networks work in conjunction with these WMDs. These models, as seen so far, are filled with information that classifies and categorizes our preferences, thus helping companies know when and where to place ads.

In part apparent that the world has become more technological and intelligent, after all, you often don't even have to look for the things they come up with. The Internet has completely changed the way in which this data was picked up, generating millions of leads in minutes.

However, we have to remember the three characteristics talked about earlier, there are differences between releasing a product on the market and viscerally attracting a person through misleading advertisements that harm an individual, usually generating huge debts.

As we can see, this whole process aims at the profit of the companies and they depend directly on a body that is intertwined, these are called governments. They are the ones that regulate, tax, and may even turn a blind eye to tax havens.

So there is nothing more cohesive than for them to return the favor by throwing money at political actions. Knowing where and when are the most favorable moments to launch a more targeted campaign due to the same data collected before.

The relationship between business, politics, and the population must be discussed and researched, but to do so you need to know that these effects happen and take an interest in the issue to stop its growth.

More books about strategy and comunication

In the book "Big Tech" by Evgeny Morozov we get another viewpoint on data and how it influences politics, finance, and more.

Thanks for the feedback” writen by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, is a bookthat brings more perspective in how feedbacks should be made and how important they are for the developmente of a company.

Finally, to understand how we reached today's technological levels we have to start somewhere, right? In the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind", by author Yuval Noah Harari, we can see the transitions of each defining moment in human history.

How can I change the Big Data economy?

The first step has already been accomplished, which is to become aware of the issue. Now comes the difficult part and that takes time to obtain, the public awareness. From the moment we see the flaws and pains that algorithms can cause, it is up to us who created them, to develop a solution for them!

  • Review your way of obtaining and analyzing the data from the Internet;
  • Ask yourself if they are in any way contributing to the suffering of a minority;
  • Reformulate your form of feedback to something transparent and inclusive, only then can you correct the errors of your algorithms.

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