Cathy O’Neil Sleepwalks into Punditry

On the BBC’s anthology series Black Mirror, each episode explores a near-future dystopia. In each episode, a small extrapolation from current technological trends leads us into a terrifying future. The series should conjure modern-day Cassandras like Cathy O’Neil, who has made a second career out of exhorting caution against algorithmic decision-making run amok. In particular, she warns that algorithmic decision-making systems, if implemented carelessly, might increase inequality, twist incentives, and perpetrate undesirable feedback loops. For example, a predictive policing system might direct aggressive policing in poor neighborhoods, drive up arrests, depress employment, orphan children, and lead, ultimately, to more crime.

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The Foundations of Algorithmic Bias

This morning, millions of people woke up and impulsively checked Facebook. They were greeted immediately by content curated by Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms. To some degree, this news might have influenced their perceptions of the day’s news, the economy’s outlook, and the state of the election. Every year, millions of people apply for jobs. Increasingly, their success might lie in part in the hands of computer programs tasked with matching applications to job openings. And every year, roughly 12 million people are arrested. Throughout the criminal justice system, computer-generated risk-assessments are used to determine which arrestees should be set free. In all these situations, algorithms are tasked with making decisions. 

Algorithmic decision-making mediates more and more of our interactions, influencing our social experiences, the news we see, our finances, and our career opportunities. We task computer programs with approving lines of credit, curating news, and filtering job applicants. Courts even deploy computerized algorithms to predict “risk of recidivism”, the probability that an individual relapses into criminal behavior. It seems likely that this trend will only accelerate as breakthroughs in artificial intelligence rapidly broaden the capabilities of software. 


Turning decision-making over to algorithms naturally raises worries about our ability to assess and enforce the neutrality of these new decision makers. How can we be sure that the algorithmically curated news doesn’t have a political party bias or job listings don’t reflect a gender or racial bias? What other biases might our automated processes be exhibiting that that we wouldn’t even know to look for?

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