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Cambridge University Science Magazine
What do job recruitment, teachers’ yearly evaluations, bank loans, probation decisions, health insurance and online advertising have in common? They are increasingly decided not by humans, but by algorithms. At first, this may sound like a good idea; we are notoriously bad at being objective and unbiased. What better than a computer to make these decisions, to be subjective and devoid of biases? In Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Cathy O’Neil, a Harvard PhD graduate in mathematics who, just before the 2008 crisis, started working for a hedge fund, debunks this myth. She reveals the insidious impact that Big Data algorithms – in her words, “Weapons of Math Destruction” - have on our society. Far from being a paragon of transparency and objectivity, algorithms are fed with data that perpetuate structural racism and discriminate against the poor. For example in the US, a combination of zip codes, Internet surfing patterns, purchasing habits and other personal data collected are used increasingly for assessing anything from credit scores to whether a candidate should get a position. The increasing role of Weapons of Math Destruction is an utterly disturbing threat to our society, more so because of how silently they operate. Becoming aware of their existence and the damages they are already causing is the first step to fight their grip.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cath O’Neil was published by Penguin in 2017. Reviewed by Elsa Loissel