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.”
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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.