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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/20/16

Playing Algorithm'n Blues

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Algorithms are literal. In a nutshell; algorithm is an opinion wrapped up in code.

And yet we are now reaching a stage where a machine decides what is news. Facebook for instance now relies solely on an algorithm to establish which stories to position in its Trending Topics section.

There may be an upside to this trend -- as in Facebook, Google and YouTube using systems to quickly block Daesh videos and similar jihadi propaganda. Soon eGLYPH will be in effect -- a system similar to Content ID on YouTube which censors videos that violate author's rights using hashing; video and audio signaled as extremist will be assigned a unique footprint, allowing automatic removal of any new version and blocking any new uploading.

And that will bring us to even murkier territory; the very concept of extremism itself. And the effects on all of us of self-censorship systems based on algorithmic logic.

How WMDs run our life

It's under this spectrum that a book such as Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O'Neil (Crown Publishing) becomes as essential as the air that we breathe.

O'Neil is the real deal; PhD in Math in Harvard, former professor at Barnard College, former quant at a hedge fund before reconverting as a data scientist, and a blogger at mathbabe.org.

Mathematical models are the engines of our digital economy. That propels O'Neil to formulate her two critical insights -- which may startle legions who regard machines as simply neutral.

1) Math-powered applications powering the data economy [are] based on choices made by fallible human beings.

2) These mathematical models [are] opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, [are] beyond dispute or appeal. And they tend to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.

Thus, O'Neil's concept of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs); or how destructive math models are accelerating a social earthquake.

O'Neil extensively details how destructive math models now micromanage vast swathes of the real economy, from advertising to the prison system, not to mention the finance industry (as in all the after effects of the never-ending 2008 crisis).

These math models are essentially opaque; unaccountable; and target above all optimization of the (consuming) masses.

A golden rule is -- what else -- to follow the money. As O'Neil puts it,

for the people running the WMDs, their feedback is money; the systems are engineered to gobble up more data and fine-tune their analytics so more money will pour in.

Victims -- as in Obama administration drone strikes -- are mere collateral damage.

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Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)
 

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