Tag: Hannah Fry

A Primer on Algorithms and Bias

The growing influence of algorithms on our lives means we owe it to ourselves to better understand what they are and how they work. Understanding how the data we use to inform algorithms influences the results they give can help us avoid biases and make better decisions.

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Algorithms are everywhere: driving our cars, designing our social media feeds, dictating which mixer we end up buying on Amazon, diagnosing diseases, and much more.

Two recent books explore algorithms and the data behind them. In Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms, mathematician Hannah Fry shows us the potential and the limitations of algorithms. And Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by writer, broadcaster, and feminist activist Caroline Criado Perez demonstrates how we need to be much more conscientious of the quality of the data we feed into them.

Humans or algorithms?

First, what is an algorithm? Explanations of algorithms can be complex. Fry explains that at their core, they are defined as step-by-step procedures for solving a problem or achieving a particular end. We tend to use the term to refer to mathematical operations that crunch data to make decisions.

When it comes to decision-making, we don’t necessarily have to choose between doing it ourselves and relying wholly on algorithms. The best outcome may be a thoughtful combination of the two.

We all know that in certain contexts, humans are not the best decision-makers. For example, when we are tired, or when we already have a desired outcome in mind, we may ignore relevant information. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman gave multiple examples from his research with Amos Tversky that demonstrated we are heavily influenced by cognitive biases such as availability and anchoring when making certain types of decisions. It’s natural, then, that we would want to employ algorithms that aren’t vulnerable to the same tendencies. In fact, their main appeal for use in decision-making is that they can override our irrationalities.

Algorithms, however, aren’t without their flaws. One of the obvious ones is that because algorithms are written by humans, we often code our biases right into them. Criado Perez offers many examples of algorithmic bias.

For example, an online platform designed to help companies find computer programmers looks through activity such as sharing and developing code in online communities, as well as visiting Japanese manga (comics) sites. People visiting certain sites with frequency received higher scores, thus making them more visible to recruiters.

However, Criado Perez presents the analysis of this recruiting algorithm by Cathy O’Neil, scientist and author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, who points out that “women, who do 75% of the world’s unpaid care work, may not have the spare leisure time to spend hours chatting about manga online . . . and if, like most of techdom, that manga site is dominated by males and has a sexist tone, a good number of women in the industry will probably avoid it.”

Criado Perez postulates that the authors of the recruiting algorithm didn’t intend to encode a bias that discriminates against women. But, she says, “if you aren’t aware of how those biases operate, if you aren’t collecting data and taking a little time to produce evidence-based processes, you will continue to blindly perpetuate old injustices.”

Fry also covers algorithmic bias and asserts that “wherever you look, in whatever sphere you examine, if you delve deep enough into any system at all, you’ll find some kind of bias.” We aren’t perfect—and we shouldn’t expect our algorithms to be perfect, either.

In order to have a conversation about the value of an algorithm versus a human in any decision-making context, we need to understand, as Fry explains, that “algorithms require a clear, unambiguous idea of exactly what we want them to achieve and a solid understanding of the human failings they are replacing.”

Garbage in, garbage out

No algorithm is going to be successful if the data it uses is junk. And there’s a lot of junk data in the world. Far from being a new problem, Criado Perez argues that “most of recorded human history is one big data gap.” And that has a serious negative impact on the value we are getting from our algorithms.

Criado Perez explains the situation this way: We live in “a world [that is] increasingly reliant on and in thrall to data. Big data. Which in turn is panned for Big Truths by Big Algorithms, using Big Computers. But when your data is corrupted by big silences, the truths you get are half-truths, at best.”

A common human bias is one regarding the universality of our own experience. We tend to assume that what is true for us is generally true across the population. We have a hard enough time considering how things may be different for our neighbors, let alone for other genders or races. It becomes a serious problem when we gather data about one subset of the population and mistakenly assume that it represents all of the population.

For example, Criado Perez examines the data gap in relation to incorrect information being used to inform decisions about safety and women’s bodies. From personal protective equipment like bulletproof vests that don’t fit properly and thus increase the chances of the women wearing them getting killed to levels of exposure to toxins that are unsafe for women’s bodies, she makes the case that without representative data, we can’t get good outputs from our algorithms. She writes that “we continue to rely on data from studies done on men as if they apply to women. Specifically, Caucasian men aged twenty-five to thirty, who weigh 70 kg. This is ‘Reference Man’ and his superpower is being able to represent humanity as whole. Of course, he does not.” Her book contains a wide variety of disciplines and situations where the gender gap in data leads to increased negative outcomes for women.

The limits of what we can do

Although there is a lot we can do better when it comes to designing algorithms and collecting the data sets that feed them, it’s also important to consider their limits.

We need to accept that algorithms can’t solve all problems, and there are limits to their functionality. In Hello World, Fry devotes a chapter to the use of algorithms in justice. Specifically, algorithms designed to provide information to judges about the likelihood of a defendant committing further crimes. Our first impulse is to say, “Let’s not rely on bias here. Let’s not have someone’s skin color or gender be a key factor for the algorithm.” After all, we can employ that kind of bias just fine ourselves. But simply writing bias out of an algorithm is not as easy as wishing it so. Fry explains that “unless the fraction of people who commit crimes is the same in every group of defendants, it is mathematically impossible to create a test which is equally accurate at predicting across the board and makes false positive and false negative mistakes at the same rate for every group of defendants.”

Fry comes back to such limits frequently throughout her book, exploring them in various disciplines. She demonstrates to the reader that “there are boundaries to the reach of algorithms. Limits to what can be quantified.” Perhaps a better understanding of those limits is needed to inform our discussions of where we want to use algorithms.

There are, however, other limits that we can do something about. Both authors make the case for more education about algorithms and their input data. Lack of understanding shouldn’t hold us back. Algorithms that have a significant impact on our lives specifically need to be open to scrutiny and analysis. If an algorithm is going to put you in jail or impact your ability to get a mortgage, then you ought to be able to have access to it.

Most algorithm writers and the companies they work for wave the “proprietary” flag and refuse to open themselves up to public scrutiny. Many algorithms are a black box—we don’t actually know how they reach the conclusions they do. But Fry says that shouldn’t deter us. Pursuing laws (such as the data access and protection rights being instituted in the European Union) and structures (such as an algorithm-evaluating body playing a role similar to the one the U.S. Food and Drug Administration plays in evaluating whether pharmaceuticals can be made available to the U.S. market) will help us decide as a society what we want and need our algorithms to do.

Where do we go from here?

Algorithms aren’t going away, so it’s best to acquire the knowledge needed to figure out how they can help us create the world we want.

Fry suggests that one way to approach algorithms is to “imagine that we designed them to support humans in their decisions, rather than instruct them.” She envisions a world where “the algorithm and the human work together in partnership, exploiting each other’s strengths and embracing each other’s flaws.”

Part of getting to a world where algorithms provide great benefit is to remember how diverse our world really is and make sure we get data that reflects the realities of that diversity. We can either actively change the algorithm, or we change the data set. And if we do the latter, we need to make sure we aren’t feeding our algorithms data that, for example, excludes half the population. As Criado Perez writes, “when we exclude half of humanity from the production of knowledge, we lose out on potentially transformative insights.”

Given how complex the world of algorithms is, we need all the amazing insights we can get. Algorithms themselves perhaps offer the best hope, because they have the inherent flexibility to improve as we do.

Fry gives this explanation: “There’s nothing inherent in [these] algorithms that means they have to repeat the biases of the past. It all comes down to the data you give them. We can choose to be ‘crass empiricists’ (as Richard Berk put it ) and follow the numbers that are already there, or we can decide that the status quo is unfair and tweak the numbers accordingly.”

We can get excited about the possibilities that algorithms offer us and use them to create a world that is better for everyone.

The Nerds Were Right. Math Makes Life Beautiful.

Math has long been the language of science, engineering, and finance, but can math help you feel calm on a turbulent flight? Get a date? Make better decisions? Here are some heroic ways math shows up in our everyday life.

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Sounds intellectually sophisticated, doesn’t it? Other than sounding really smart at after-work cocktails, what could be the benefit of understanding where math and physics permeate your life?

Well, what if I told you that math and physics can help you make better decisions by aligning with how the world works? What if I told you that math can help you get a date? Help you solve problems? What if I told you that knowing the basics of math and physics can help make you less afraid and confused? And, perhaps most important, they can help make life more beautiful. Seriously.

If you’ve ever been on a plane when turbulence has hit, you know how unnerving that can be. Most people get freaked out by it, and no matter how much we fly, most of us have a turbulence threshold. When the sides of the plane are shaking, noisily holding themselves together, and the people beside us are white with fear, hands clenched on their armrests, even the calmest of us will ponder the wisdom of jetting 38,000 feet above the ground in a metal tube moving at 1,000 km an hour.

Considering that most planes don’t fall from the sky on account of turbulence isn’t that comforting in the moment. Aren’t there always exceptions to the rule? But what if you understood why, or could explain the physics involved to the freaked-out person beside you? That might help.

In Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life, Helen Czerski spends a chapter describing the gas laws. Covering subjects from the making of popcorn to the deep dives of sperm whales, her amazingly accessible prose describes how the movement of gas is fundamental to the functioning of pretty much everything on earth, including our lungs. She reveals air to be not the static clear thing that we perceive when we bother to look, but rivers of molecules in constant collision, pushing and moving, giving us both storms and cloudless skies.

So when you appreciate air this way, as a continually flowing and changing collection of particles, turbulence is suddenly less scary. Planes are moving through a substance that is far from uniform. Of course, there are going to be pockets of more or less dense air molecules. Of course, they will have minor impacts on the plane as it moves through these slightly different pressure areas. Given that the movement of air can create hurricanes, it’s amazing that most flights are as smooth as they are.

You know what else is really scary? Approaching someone for a date or a job. Rejection sucks. It makes us feel awful, and therefore the threat of it often stops us from taking risks. You know the scene. You’re out at a bar with some friends. A group of potential dates is across the way. Do you risk the cringingly icky feeling of rejection and approach the person you find most attractive, or do you just throw out a lot of eye contact and hope that person approaches you?

Most men go with the former, as difficult as it is. Women will often opt for the latter. We could discuss social conditioning, with the roles that our culture expects each of us to follow. But this post is about math and physics, which actually turn out to be a lot better in providing guidance to optimize our chances of success in the intimidating bar situation.

In The Mathematics of Love, Hannah Fry explains the Gale-Shapley matching algorithm, which essentially proves that “If you put yourself out there, start at the top of the list, and work your way down, you’ll always end up with the best possible person who’ll have you. If you sit around and wait for people to talk to you, you’ll end up with the least bad person who approaches you. Regardless of the type of relationship you’re after, it pays to take the initiative.”

The math may be complicated, but the principle isn’t. Your chances of ending up with what you want — say, the guy with the amazing smile or that lab director job in California — dramatically increase if you make the first move. Fry says, “aim high, and aim frequently. The math says so.” Why argue with that?

Understanding more physics can also free us from the panic-inducing, heart-pounding fear that we are making the wrong decisions. Not because physics always points out the right decision, but because it can lead us away from this unproductive, subjective, binary thinking. How? By giving us the tools to ask better questions.

Consider this illuminating passage from Czerski:

We live in the middle of the timescales, and sometimes it’s hard to take the rest of time seriously. It’s not just the difference between now and then, it’s the vertigo you get when you think about what “now” actually is. It could be a millionth of a second, or a year. Your perspective is completely different when you’re looking at incredibly fast events or glacially slow ones. But the difference hasn’t got anything to do with how things are changing; it’s just a question of how long they take to get there. And where is “there”? It is equilibrium, a state of balance. Left to itself, nothing will ever shift from this final position because it has no reason to do so. At the end, there are no forces to move anything, because they’re all balanced. They physical world, all of it, only ever has one destination: equilibrium.

How can this change your decision-making process?

You might start to consider whether you are speeding up the goal of equilibrium (working with force) or trying to prevent equilibrium (working against force).  One option isn’t necessarily worse than the other. But the second one is significantly more work.

So then you will understand how much effort is going to be required on your part. Love that house with the period Georgian windows? Great. But know that you will have to spend more money fighting to counteract the desire of the molecules on both sides of the window to achieve equilibrium in varying temperatures than you will if you go with the modern bungalow with the double-paned windows.

And finally, curiosity. Being curious about the world helps us find solutions to problems by bringing new knowledge to bear on old challenges. Math and physics are actually powerful tools for investigating the possibilities of what is out there.

Fry writes that “Mathematics is about abstracting away from reality, not replicating it. And it offers real value in the process. By allowing yourself to view the world from an abstract perspective, you create a language that is uniquely able to capture and describe the patterns and mechanisms that would otherwise remain hidden.”

Physics is very similar. Czerski says, “Seeing what makes the world tick changes your perspective. The world is a mosaic of physical patterns, and once you’re familiar with the basics, you start to see how those patterns fit together.”

Math and physics enhance your curiosity. These subjects allow us to dive into the unknown without being waylaid by charlatans or sidetracked by the impossible. They allow us to tackle the mysteries of life one at a time, opening up the possibilities of the universe.

As Czerski says, “Knowing about some basics bits of physics [and math!] turns the world into a toybox.” A toybox full of powerful and beautiful things.