Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

5.26.2017

Models are Opinions Embedded in Mathematics


I just finished a most timely book: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O'Neil. Here's the description of the book at Goodreads:
A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on mathematical modeling—a pervasive new force in society that threatens to undermine democracy and widen inequality.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated. But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this shocking book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his race or neighborhood), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a “toxic cocktail for democracy.” Welcome to the dark side of Big Data.

Tracing the arc of a person’s life, from college to retirement, O’Neil exposes the black box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. Models that score teachers and students, sort resumes, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set parole, and monitor our health—all have pernicious feedback loops. They don’t simply describe reality, as proponents claim, they change reality, by expanding or limiting the opportunities people have. O’Neil calls on modelers to take more responsibility for how their algorithms are being used. But in the end, it’s up to us to become more savvy about the models that govern our lives. This important book empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change.
Here's what I wrote for my review:

You are prey. The predator is numbers. Numbers that have been carefully designed to turn you into prey. Numbers wielded by marketers, politicians, insurance companies, and so many others. The problem with these particular numbers is that they give those using them the illusion of knowing you when all they really manage is a proxy, a mathematical approximation that may or may not be accurate. And they are built into self-feeding, self-affirming, reinforcing loops that make them ever more restrictive and controlling. They don't simply feed on us, they increasingly define us.

Cathy O'Neil has been a mathematics professor and has worked in the data science industry in a variety of businesses and roles. She knows how the numbers work and has seen them in action from multiple perspectives. At the start of her conclusion in Weapons of Math Destruction, she writes:
In this march through a virtual lifetime, we’ve visited school and college, the courts and the workplace, even the voting booth. Along the way, we’ve witnessed the destruction caused by WMDs. Promising efficiency and fairness, they distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy. It might seem like the logical response is to disarm these weapons, one by one.

The problem is that they’re feeding on each other. Poor people are more likely to have bad credit and live in high-crime neighborhoods, surrounded by other poor people. Once the dark universe of WMDs digests that data, it showers them with predatory ads for subprime loans or for-profit schools. It sends more police to arrest them, and when they’re convicted it sentences them to longer terms. This data feeds into other WMDs, which score the same people as high risks or easy targets and proceed to block them from jobs, while jacking up their rates for mortgages, car loans, and every kind of insurance imaginable. This drives their credit rating down further, creating nothing less than a death spiral of modeling. Being poor in a world of WMDs is getting more and more dangerous and expensive.

The same WMDs that abuse the poor also place the comfortable classes of society in their own marketing silos. . . . The quiet and personal nature of this targeting keeps society’s winners from seeing how the very same models are destroying lives, sometimes just a few blocks away.
O'Neil has crafted a broad overview that introduces the complexity of the topic with numerous examples, and through it a call to wield those tools more ethically and morally. The book is highly accessible, intelligent without being difficult and entertaining without being frivolous. This is a book that deserves high readership and a topic that needs extensive discussion.
Predictive models are, increasingly, the tools we will be relying on the run our institutions, deploy our resources, and manage our lives. But as I’ve tried to show throughout this book, these models are constructed not just from data but from the choices we make about which data to pay attention to—and which to leave out. Those choices are not just about logistics, profits, and efficiency. They are fundamentally moral.
And here are some other quotes I pulled out for sharing:
Models, despite their reputation for impartiality, reflect goals and ideology. . . . It’s something we do without a second thought. Our own values and desires influence our choices, from the data we choose to collect to the questions we ask. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.

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The modelers . . . have to make do with trying to answer the question “How have people like you behaved in the past?” when ideally they would ask, “How have you behaved in the past.

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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. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes it will mean putting fairness ahead of profit.

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All too often the poor are blamed for their poverty, their bad schools, and the crime that afflicts their neighborhoods. That’s why few politicians even bother with antipoverty strategies. In the common view, the ills of poverty are more like a disease, and the effort—or at least the rhetoric—is to quarantine it and keep it from spreading to the middle class. We need to think about how we assign blame in modern life and how models exacerbate this cycle.

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From a mathematical point of view, however, trust is hard to quantify. That’s a challenge for people building models. Sadly, it’s far simpler to keep counting arrests, to build models that assume we’re birds of a feather and treat us as such. Innocent people surrounded  by criminals get treated badly, and criminals surrounded by a law-abiding public get a pass. And because of the strong correlation between poverty and reported crime, the poor continue to get caught up in these digital dragnets. The rest of us barely have to think about them.

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We’ve seen time and again that mathematical models can sift through data to locate people who are likely to face great challenges, whether from crime, poverty, or education. It’s up to society whether to use that intelligence to reject and punish them—or to reach out to them with the resources they need. We can use the scale and efficiency that make WMDs so pernicious in order to help people. It all depends on the objective we choose.

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The model is optimized for efficiency and profitability, not for justice or the good of the “team.” This is, of course, the nature of capitalism. For companies, revenue is like oxygen. It keeps them alive. From their perspective, it would be profoundly stupid, even unnatural, to turn away from potential savings. That’s why society needs countervailing forces, such as vigorous press coverage that highlights the abuses of efficiency and shames companies into doing the right thing. And when they come up short . . . it must expose them again and again. It also needs regulators to keep them in line, strong unions to organize workers and amplify their needs and complaints, and politicians willing to pass laws to restrain corporations’ worst excesses.

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Insurance is an industry, traditionally, that draws on the majority of the community to respond to the needs of an unfortunate minority. In the villages we lived in centuries ago, families, religious groups, and neighbors helped look after each other when fire, accident, or illness struck. In the market economy, we outsource this care to insurance companies, which keep a portion of the money for themselves and call it profit.

As insurance companies learn more about us, they’ll be able to pinpoint those who appear to be the riskiest customers and then either drive their rates to the stratosphere or, where legal, deny them coverage. This is a far cry from insurance’s original purpose, which is to help society balance its risk. In a targeted world, we no longer pay the average. Instead, we’re saddled with anticipated costs. Instead of smoothing out life’s bumps, insurance companies will demand payment for those bumps in advance. This undermines the point of insurance, and the hits will fall especially hard on those who can least afford them.

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The convergence of Big Data and consumer marketing now provides politicians with far more powerful tools. They can target microgroups of citizens for both votes and money and appeal to each of them with a meticulously honed message, one that no one else is likely to see. It might be a banner on Facebook or a fund-raising email. But each allows candidates to quietly sell multiple versions of themselves—and it’s anyone’s guess which version will show up for work after inauguration. . . .

As this happens, it will become harder to access the political messages our neighbors are seeing—and as a result, to understand why they believe what they do, often passionately. Even a nosy journalist will struggle to track down the messaging. . . .

The political marketers maintain deep dossiers on us, feed us a trickle of information, and measure how we respond to it. But we’re kept in the dark about what our neighbors are being fed. This resembles a common tactic used by business negotiators. They deal with different parties separately so that none of them knows what the other is hearing. This asymmetry of information prevents the various parties from joining forces—which is precisely the point of a democratic government.

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Our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, means “Out of Many, One.” But WMDs reverse the equation. Working in darkness, they carve one into many, while hiding us from the harms they inflict upon our neighbors far and near.

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Predictive models are, increasingly, the tools we will be relying on to run our institutions, deploy our resources, and manage our lives. But as I’ve tried to show throughout this book, these models are constructed not just from data but from the choices we make about which data to pay attention to—and which to leave out. Those choices are not just about logistics, profits, and efficiency. They are fundamentally moral.

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