Reading _Weapons of Math Destruction_, the final chapters

ONeil_Weapons of Math Destruction pb coverWith this post we conclude our reading of Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.  (If you’d like to catch up with the reading schedule, click here.  All posts for this reading, including the schedule one, are grouped here.)

Here I’ll summarize this week’s chapters, then offer some discussion questions.

But first, checking in on fellow readers’ reactions: Jason Green posted his responses to part 4.

Meanwhile, author O’Neil has a new New York Times piece on academia and automation, urging researchers to work on the problems caused by algorithms.  One Princeton professor pushes back, as does a research team.  A Google Doc sprung up to document academic programs studying data.  The London School of Economics has at least two blog posts and one commission on the topic. (thanks to George Station for these last links)

Onward!

Chapter 10,  “The Targeted Citizen: Civic Life” 

Here the book turns to politics and the way algorithms might reshape it.  O’Neill begins with two recent studies, each of which suggested Facebook users’ attitudes can be altered by what they see on that network.

Next, the chapter tours the history of recent American presidential campaigns and their use of big data, starting with direct mail (187), and touching on the Romney, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Cruz runs.  O’Neil noted Cambridge Analytica’s role early (191; she references this 2015 Guardian article).

The chapter concludes by looking at microtargeting in anti-abortion and other campaigns, citing the research of Zeynep Tufekci.  It finds American republicans more interested in, and susceptible to, microtargeting (194) and concludes that the practice constitutes a very dangerous WMD.  “It is vast, opaque, and unaccountable.” (198) . It also separates people civically, as “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.” (195)

Interestingly, in the 2016 edition of this book O’Neil decided not to call Facebook and Google WMDs, in the political context:

I wouldn’t yet call Facebook or Google’s algorithms political WMDs, because I have no evidence that the companies are using their networks to cause harm.  Still, the potential for abuse is vast. (185)

Conclusion

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. (204)

This is the first edition’s conclusion, which is revised to an extent in the afterward.  Its essence is a call for federal regulation of algorithms.

O’Neil begins by noting that WMDs are bad enough in isolation, but that their synergies can make things worse.  “The problem is that they’re feeding on each other.” (199) . They may have some benefits, but the poorest will suffer the worst (202).

How could regulation work?  O’Neil proposes a data scientist’s ethical code, akin to medical doctors’ Hippocratic Oath (205).  She goes on to describe how a state regulation would have to carefully measure WMD impact, how auditing movements could work, and that we should simply ditch some of the algorithms that can’t be fixed:

The only solution in such a case is to ditch the unfair system.  Forget, at least for a decade or two, about building tools to measure the effectiveness of a teacher. (208)

Others should be “dumb[ed] down.” (210) .   Some positive ones might work, even in education (216).  Meanwhile, helpful actors like ProPublica can use algorithms to expose and oppose WMDs (211).  Ultimately, black box algorithms should be opened to the public (214).

Afterward

(This is apparently new for the 2017 paperback edition)

We begin with the 2016 election and the role algorithms played in it, from polling to Facebook.  ProPublica again appears in a heroic role, exposing another WMD in the justice system (223-4).  O’Neil is skeptical about polling, criticizing it for generating bad readings, and thinks its importance will dwindle in the wake of Trump’s win (221-2).

The author also offers a modification to her previous work, suggesting that we understand algorithms by “identify[ing] the stakeholders and weigh[ing] their relative harms.” (225) . That means balancing costs and benefits across society, such as comparing people protected by software versus those harmed.  One example is the state of Michigan, whose employment tracking program falsely accused 20,000 people of fraud, injuring their reputations, along with their ability to get jobs (226-7).  O’Neil also recommends that we examine not only data processing but collection (229).

Questions

  • How can political campaigns best use big data and data analytics without causing harm?
  • Which educational uses of algorithms actually benefit learners?
  • Which actors (agencies, nonprofits, companies, scholars) are best placed to help address the problems O’Neil identifies?
  • Are there themes in the book we haven’t addressed, that we should?

And that brings us to the end of this reading.  If you’re like to look back over our earlier discussions of Weapons, click here.  If you’d like to learn more about our book club, including our previous readings, click here.

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Into the future with air travel dystopia

Recently I’ve been thinking about air travel, dystopia, and the future.

Yes, it’s natural for anyone flying in the United States* to think of dystopia, given our system’s combination of misanthropic service, grim airports, overcrowding, a military-like mix of rushing and delays, escalating surveillance, and overall miasma of despair and doom.  This is a logical, even organic insight.  Yet I’d like to use it to look ahead as well.

For starters, last week I “enjoyed” a trip on United Basic Economy.  If you’re new to the concept, it’s like economy, except with less charm.  As in:

  • No carry-on luggage.  One “personal item” is permitted alone.
  • No choice in seating.  You sit where they put you.
  • No upgrades or refunds.
  • No gate checking for luggage.
  • You get seated last, meaning you are the easiest to bump.

For a bonus, when I checked into the ticket counter at the Burlington Airport an agent told me I could carry a couple of bags after all. When I reached the departure gate the agent there disagreed, and insisted on charging me double to check my duffel and CPAP bags: $110 US for a couple of smallish bags.

I’m morbidly fascinated by the idea of Basic Economy.  If it’s aimed at poorer travelers, how is United expecting to make any money off of them?  If it’s aimed at day trippers (say, flying to another city for a meeting in the morning, then flying back, and hence not requiring luggage) wouldn’t those travelers resent the bad treatment?  Surely reducing the amount of carry on luggage isn’t that large a concern?

Maybe I’m looking at Basic Economy the wrong way.  Perhaps it’s not a niche marketing effort, but a trial for what a large swath of economy seating might become: degraded, more tightly controlled.  It’s a preview of things to come.  Then we can pay more to avoid it – say, there’s a business model!

When I returned from this trip, an online friend pointed me to a hilarious Delta paid ad in the New York Times, entitled “WELCOME TO THE AIRPORT OF THE FUTURE!”  It’s an enthusiastic celebration of new technologies applied to the Delta air travel experience, and worth looking at in some detail.

The whole thing is written in the second person present tense.  “You are doing this,” “You enjoy that”, and so on.  It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure set in Franz Kafka International Airport.It’s hard to read any of these assertions without laughing.  For example, “Airport lobbies are designed with beauty and functionality in mind, reducing congestion while creating a calm and welcoming environment.” (bold in original) Ahahahaha!  Sorry, I just spent quality time in the Orlando and Philadelphia airports.

Delta airport of the future

The hortatory voice of Delta goes on: Continue reading

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Now comes the call for wealthy countries to make more babies

(Yes, I’m back in the bloghouse.  I’ve traveled thousands of miles so far this month, and am catching up.)

Over the past two weeks two interesting opinion pieces appeared, calling for families in certain nations to make more, not few, babies.  It’s one of those times when I as a futurist can mutter “I knew it! about time!”  We might be seeing a trend appear and start to rise.

Let me back up and explain.

Soylent Green posterBack in the 1960s and 70s many people feared overpopulation, and for good reasons.  Human population was rising.  Serious research, most notably The Limits To Growth (1972; based on a powerful computer simulation), suggested crises to come, ranging from overcrowding to starvation.  Science fiction and popular culture echoed this with novels like Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1968), books like The Population Bomb (1968), and movies like Soylent Green (1973) and Z.P.G. (1972).

(I remember clearly reading the liner notes for a piece of electronic-ish music around 1975.  I was about eight, and the album cover back described music for an overpopulated future, when the earth was covered by giant buildings, packed tightly with far, far too many humans.  I wish that memory was clear enough to include a title or composer.)

You will notice that during the decades after the population bomb’s warning Earth hasn’t been overrun by teeming hordes devouring everything in their path.  Mass starvation hasn’t occurred.  One big reason for this welcome development is that overpopulation terrified large numbers of people and many governments to take steps to reduce population growth, most notably China’s one child per family policy.    (This is one of those cases where predictions can be productively wrong: by successfully influencing the world to take steps to avoid a bad state of affairs.  Futurism often gets dinged unfairly for this, in terms of predictions that didn’t play out.  People forget the futuring work is an intervention, with consequences, we hope.)

Another reason, which bears on education, is, well, education.  Since the 1970s humans worldwide have received more formal instruction than at any point in our history.  As plenty of research has shown, when girls and women have more education, they tend to give birth to fewer children.  Schools have helped defuse the population bomb, in other words.

Additionally, and related, women in the wake of feminist progress have been choosing lives that might not focus mostly on child-bearing and -rearing, which is a massive social transformation in itself, obviously.  This change includes a reduction in reproduction rates.  As one writer pithily sums up, “The population bomb is being diffused. By women. Because they want to.” (I’m pretty sure they meant “defused”)

On top of that, we’ve had progress in public health, including the promulgation of birth control, improved sanitation and water access, improved treatment, and more.  (Uneven, yes, but still, overall progress.)  Hence our living longer lives, meaning folks over 65 constitute a larger proportion of the population, driving average and median ages up.  Hence our having great abilities to control population growth.

There are other reasons in play here, including a possible generational downshift in births, but you get the idea.  Overall, that mid-to-late 20th century fear of overpopulation has been addressed well enough to become the staple of a new round of popular culture about people under-reproducing themselves, in films like Idiocracy (2006). Silicon Valley can emit a food-thing called Soylent without it being a sick joke, at least in terms of overpopulation concerns.

Beyond fiction and the Valley, a growing number of developed nations worry about underpopulation as their inhabitants age, giving rise to concerns about imbalances between younger workers and older pensioners/retirees, which have implications for taxes, labor economics, pensions, and many other issues.  (This plays a role in immigration debates.) . China has changed its one child policy to allow, and even encourage, families to have two children each.  It’s not uncommon to speak of the opposite of a baby boom, a baby bust.

Accordingly, for several years I’ve been watching for signs of someone calling for people to have more children.

(NB: I am not echoing such a call, in case you’re wondering.  I am observing it as a cultural development with potential power to shape the future.)

Some on the cultural right have been urging people to have more children for some time.  The Quiverfull movement, for example, celebrates families with oodles of kids.  These voices have been clear, but culturally very marginal.  Instead, I’ve been waiting to see them, or rather, their ideas, go mainstream.

Cue American politician and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who was a baby when Limits to Growth Appeared, and a two-year-old when Soylent Green appeared.  He just published a high profile editorial calling for Americans to have more children. Continue reading

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International student applications to American campuses down in 2017: new study

Have fewer foreign students applied to American colleges and universities in the way of Trump’s election?  We’ve seen several attempts to determine this, but a new report claims the answer is clearly “yes”.

The number of newly arriving international students declined an average 7 percent in fall 2017, with 45 percent of campuses reporting drops in new international enrollment, according to a survey of nearly 500 campuses across the country by the Institute of International Education.

Let’s dig into some key details.

The total number of international students actually grew, by 3%.  The decline is in the number of new students.  Overall, “the new findings signal a slowing of growth”.

These numbers play out very differently in different institutions:

these numbers were not evenly distributed: 45 percent of the campuses reported declines in new enrollments for fall 2017, while 31 percent reported increases in new enrollments and 24 percent reported no change from last year.

For example, “Particularly hard hit are campuses in the Midwest, according to the institute.”

The New York Times article quietly mentions a key detail here:  “Another reason for the decline is increasing competition from countries like Canada, Britain and Australia, said Allan E. Goodman, president of the [IEE].”  Some of my readers will recognize my persistent claim that international education is becoming more competitive.

Why does this matter?  Foreign students are a significant piece of institutional finances:

The drop in new students signals potential financial difficulties for some small universities that have come to rely on money from foreign students, who provide an infusion of $39 billion into the United States economy each year.

Total numbers are fascinating.  Notice how international students have grown to 1/20 of all students attending American institutions:

The number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education increased by 3.4 percent to 1,078,822 students in 2016/17… International students represent just over five percent of the more than 20 million students enrolled in U.S. higher education for the third year, up from three to four percent earlier in the decade. This increase is due to both the growing numbers of international students and small declines in the number of American students enrolled in U.S. higher education since the total U.S. higher education enrollment reached its peak in 2012/13.

(Note, too, that final note about American population decline.)

Where do international students come from?  Two countries dominate:

For the third year in a row, the largest growth was in the number of students from India, primarily at the graduate level and in optional practical training (OPT). China remains the top sending country, with almost twice the number of students in the U.S. as India, but India’s rate of growth outpaced China’s.

Students from the top two countries of origin—China and India—now represent approximately 50 percent of the total enrollment of international students in the United States.

It’s hard to tell if this report indicates a temporary blip or the reversal of a trend.  If it’s a blip, we should expect greater numbers of international students to apply to American colleges and universities once more.  If it’s a reversal… this will be a serious challenge to many campuses, both in terms of financials and diversity.

What might prompt the latter is continued fear of Trump’s policies, obviously.  That fear could grow, either because of new policies (think of greater immigration controls, or bad stories about ICE, or a war, or a combination) or expanded media coverage abroad, or both.  Another force that could stymie growth is competition from other nations, notably Canada and various European countries.  Looking ahead a little, we should anticipate that at some point Chinese higher education will have grown enough to handle more of that nation’s students domestically.

Keep an eye on this one.

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Reading _Weapons of Math Destruction_, part 5

ONeil_Weapons of Math Destruction pb coverWith this post we continue our reading of Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.  Now the topic shifts to the impact of data analytics on personal finance.

(If you’d like to catch up on the reading schedule, click here.  All posts for this reading, including the schedule one, are grouped here. More info about our online book club is here.)

Here I’ll summarize this week’s chapters, then offer some discussion questions.

But first, some book club contributions since the last post. The New Inquiry released a big data project that inverts one key piece of a WMD, by focusing on the wealthy instead of the poor by mapping the likelihood of white collar crime (white paper) (thanks to Jason Green).  Slate has a new article about the risks of predictive policing (thanks to Jason again). Jason also blogged about part 3 of our reading.

On Twitter Duncan Stewart issued this overview of the book:

Sherri Spelic shared a feeling of gloom at this point in the reading:

Good thoughts.  Once again, I’m delighted to hear from so many people as we read together.

Now, onward to this week’s reading…

Chapter 8, “Collateral Damage: Landing Credit” 

This chapter explores the ways companies can (mis)assess our financial status.  Key to this is the idea of “e-scores”, or methods for collecting and interpreting creditworthiness that do not include actual credit scores (143, 144).  One problem with them is their reliance on “a veritable blizzard of proxies” instead of more relevant data, especially based on classes of people, rather than on individuals (145-6).  Once again this functions as a negative feedback loop as bad e-scores make it harder for poor people and people of color to escape poverty (148-9, 158).  E-score data is also largely unregulated (151).

Also in this chapter is an anti-WMD, FICO scores, as O’Neil views them as transparent, effectively regulated, and working with “a clear feedback loop” (142).  Another positive feature is the role of individuals reaching through data to glimpse the lives of others, and act to complement a WMD (160, 163,165).

Keep an eye out for e-scores; they will recur through the rest of this book.

Chapter 9, “No Safe Zone: Getting Insurance”

This chapter picks up on the previous ones to further pursue problems of data analytics on personal finance, with a focus here on insurance.  That’s a business with a longstanding focus on data, and O’Neil begins with an early example of it going wrong by establishing redlining.  More recently, insurance companies can err by classing customers incorrectly.

One way they err is when car insurance businesses rely less on how well customers driver, and much more on their financial data, according to a recent Consumer Reports investigation.  Yes, e-scores return, and have a powerful, often invisible, impact on what we pay for policies (164-5).  Once again, companies deploy such data analytics to extract greater profit.  Their tools fit O’Neil’s WMD model, being anti-transparent, scaled, and offering a bad feedback loop.  Once more, they are tilted against poor people, making it harder for them to work their way up the ladder (169, 171).

O’Neil finds the wellness movement to partake of this bad data science.  Despite good reasons for using it as a way to encourage people to lead healthier lives, it leads to intrusive surveillance.  The author fears that firms could use wellness data to shape employment hiring decisions (175), but does hold back from condemning wellness programs as full WMDs, finding them actually pretty transparent (178).  Body mass index (BMI) comes in for criticism as well (176-7).

Questions

  • What are good examples of positive uses of medical data?
  • Do you see e-scores or similar data analytics in your world?
  • What prevents these tools from being transparent?

Next up: for November 20: chapter 10,  “The Targeted Citizen: Civic Life”,  the conclusion, and the afterward (apparently new for the paperback edition).

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One more American college to close

Memphis_College_of_Art_logoAnd another American campus announced it would shut down, which is a phrase I’m getting far too used to typing. The Memphis College of Art (Wikipedia) will shortly close its doors to new students (official announcement) and see off its last students in early 2020.*

It’s a small institution, like many approaching closure, merger, or radical reorganization, enrolling around 800 students.

One of the causes for this closure is all too familiar to my readers: declining enrollment.  According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal,

Enrollment for the current school year was an unexpectedly low 307 (including 25 graduate students), a drop from about 380 in recent years and from a historic high of close to 450…

Recall that for a private institution without a massive endowment, the bulk of revenue comes from student tuition.  As the number of students declines, so does the chance of sustainability.

Another cause is a bit unusual, although familiar to those who followed the Cooper Union story: real estate problems.  The official statement cites “overwhelming real estate debt” as one reason in addition to enrollment.  MCA seems to have borrowed to expand, and the move backfired.

All causes combined, MCA sees itself having “no viable long-term plan for financial sustainability”.

This is a case where the academic event has serious local ramifications.  MCA has had a great deal of influence on the region’s art scene and public spaces.  Here’s one lyrical columnAs Josh Kim puts it,

the closing of MCA is a huge loss to the city of Memphis. This is a school that has educated the creative class in which our culture depends. The closing of this private college is a public loss.

Nearby liberal arts college is not interested in taking over the location, apparently.

What can we learn from this, with an eye on the future of education?  Some quick notes:

  1. Small scale might be emerging as a weakness in the American setting, unless backed up by great wealth or external support.
  2. The arts, along with the humanities, are vulnerable.
  3. Mergers aren’t always available as an option (from the announcement: “Is Memphis College of Art merging with another college? No”).
  4. Real estate can be an Achilles Heel.
  5. Community support isn’t necessarily sufficient for sustainability.

*My apologies for not posting this earlier.  Travel schedule has been insane.

(via Scott Robison on Twitter; thanks to my friends in the Bluff City for extra help)

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Another small American college will close

A small college in Oklahoma announced that it will close next year.  That’s another one.

Founded in 1875,  St. Gregory’s University (Wikipedia) will end its career as an appeal to the federal government for a loan fell through.

The official statement (also announced on Facebook) doesn’t go into great detail about the causes, save for one economic point.  “Like so many small liberal arts colleges, St. Gregory’s has struggled financially for years.”

St. Gregory’s is only one data point, but it’s part of a series.  I’m not sure how this campus fits in with its specific details (too removed from big markets? too religious?).

(thanks to Pumpkin Yang)

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