Obviously the more transparency we have as auditors, the more we can get, but the main goal is to understand important characteristics about a black box algorithm without necessarily having to understand every single granular detail of the algorithm.

— Cathy O'Neil

The most risky Cathy O'Neil quotes to get the best of your day

There's less of a connection for a lot of people between the technical decisions we make and the ethical ramifications we are responsible for.

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People are starting to be very skeptical of the Facebook algorithm and all kinds of data surveillance.

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We don't let a car company just throw out a car and start driving it around without checking that the wheels are fastened on. We know that would result in death; but for some reason we have no hesitation at throwing out some algorithms untested and unmonitored even when they're making very important life-and-death decisions.

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I think what's happened is that the general public has become much more aware of the destructive power of Wall Street.

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Occupy provided me a lens through which to see systemic discrimination.

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I know how models are built, because I build them myself, so I know that I'm embedding my values into every single algorithm I create and I am projecting my agenda onto those algorithms.

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I would argue that one of the major problems with our blind trust in algorithms is that we can propagate discriminatory patterns without acknowledging any kind of intent.

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Especially from my experience as a quant in a hedge fund - I naively went in there thinking that I would be making the market more efficient and then was like, oh my God, I'm part of this terrible system that is blowing up the world's economy, and I don't want to be a part of that.

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So much of our society as a whole is gearing us to maximize our salary or bonus.

Basically, we just think in terms of money. Or, if not money, then, if you're in academia, it's prestige. It's a different kind of currency. And there's this unmeasured dimension of all jobs, which is whether it's improving the world.

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Because of my experience in Occupy, instead of asking the question, "Who will benefit from this system I'm implementing with the data?" I started to ask the question, "What will happen to the most vulnerable?" Or "Who is going to lose under this system? How will this affect the worst-off person?" Which is a very different question from "How does this improve certain people's lives?"

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I set up a company, an algorithmic auditing company myself. I have no clients.

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The public trusts big data way too much.

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About Cathy O'Neil

Quotes 41 sayings
Profession Historian
Birthday January 29, 1954

I think there's inherently an issue that models will literally never be able to handle, which is that when somebody comes along with a new way of doing something that's really excellent, the models will not recognize it. They only know how to recognize excellence when they can measure it somehow.

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Google is so big you have no idea what a given person does.

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I think big data companies only like good news.

So I think they're just hoping that they don't get sued, essentially.

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We can't just throw something out there and assume it works just because it has math in it.

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The NSA buys data from private companies, so the private companies are the source of all this stuff.

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Micro-targeting is the ability for a campaign to profile you, to know much more about you than you know about it, and then to choose exactly what to show you.

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When I think about whether I want to take a job, I don't just think about whether it's technically interesting, although I do consider that. I also consider the question of whether it's good for the world.

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People felt like they were friends with Google, and they believed in the "Do No Evil" thing that Google said. They trusted Google more than they trusted the government, and I never understood that.

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My fantasy is that there is a new regulatory body that is in charge of algorithmic auditing.

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With recidivism algorithms, for example, I worry about racist outcomes.

With personality tests [for hiring], I worry about filtering out people with mental health problems from jobs. And with a teacher value-added model algorithm [used in New York City to score teachers], I worry literally that it's not meaningful. That it's almost a random number generator.

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Every system using data separates humanity into winners and losers.

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The most important goal I had in mind was to convince people to stop blindly trusting algorithms and assuming that they are inherently fair and objective.

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When people are not given an option by some secret scoring system, it's very hard to complain, so they often don't even know that they've been victimized.

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That's what we do when we work in Silicon Valley tech startups: We think about who's going to benefit from this. That's almost the only thing we think about.

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Most people don't have any association in their minds with what they do and with ethics. They think they somehow moved past the questions of morality or values or ethics, and that's something that I've never imagined to be true.

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For whatever reason, I have never separated the technical from the ethical.

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I don't think anybody's ever notified that they were sentenced to an extra two years because their recidivism score had been high, or notified that this beat cop happened to be in their neighborhood checking people's pockets for pot because of a predictive policing algorithm. That's just not how it works.

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Evidence of harm is hard to come by.

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An insurance company might say, "Tell us more about yourself so your premiums can go down." When they say that, they're addressing the winners, not the losers.

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There might never be that moment when everyone says, "Oh my God, big data is awful."

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The disconnect I was experiencing was that people hated Wall Street, but they loved tech.

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There are lots of different ways that algorithms can go wrong, and what we have now is a system in which we assume because it's shiny new technology with a mathematical aura that it's perfect and it doesn't require further vetting. Of course, we never have that assumption with other kinds of technology.

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It's a standard thing you hear from startup people - that their product is somehow improving the world. And if you follow the reasoning, you will get somewhere, and I'll tell you where you get: You'll get to the description of what happens to the winners under the system that they're building.

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You'll never be able to really measure anything, right? Including teachers.

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The national conversation around white entitlement, around institutionalized racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, I think, came about in large part because of the widening and broadening of our understanding of inequality. That conversation was begun by Occupy.

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We've learned our lesson with finance because they made a huge goddamn explosion that almost shut down the world. But the thing I realized is that there might never be an explosion on the scale of the financial crisis happening with big data.

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I wanted to prevent people from giving them too much power.

I see that as a pattern. I wanted that to come to an end as soon as possible.

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The training one receives when one becomes a technician, like a data scientist - we get trained in mathematics or computer science or statistics - is entirely separated from a discussion of ethics.

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