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  • Weapons of Math Destruction

  • How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
  • Written by: Cathy O'Neil
  • Narrated by: Cathy O'Neil
  • Length: 6 hrs and 23 mins
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (111 ratings)

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Weapons of Math Destruction

Written by: Cathy O'Neil
Narrated by: Cathy O'Neil
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Publisher's Summary

A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life - and threaten to rip apart our social fabric

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly the decisions that affect our lives - where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance - are being made not by humans but by mathematical models. In theory this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated.

But as Cathy O'Neil reveals in this urgent and necessary book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable even when they're wrong. Most troublingly, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can't get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he's then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a "toxic cocktail for democracy". Welcome to the dark side of big data.

Tracing the arc of a person's life, O'Neil exposes the black-box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. These "weapons of math destruction" score teachers and students, sort résumés, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set paroles, and monitor our health.

O'Neil calls on modelers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and on policy makers to regulate their use. But in the end, it's up to us to become savvier about the models that govern our lives. This important book empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change.

©2016 Cathy O'Neil (P)2016 Random House Audio

What the critics say

" Weapons of Math Destruction opens the curtain on algorithms that exploit people and distort the truth while posing as neutral mathematical tools. This book is wise, fierce, and desperately necessary." (Jordan Ellenberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of How Not to Be Wrong )
" Weapons of Math Destruction shines invaluable light on the invisible algorithms and complex mathematical models used by government and big business." (Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform)

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What listeners say about Weapons of Math Destruction

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Amazing Listen!

I really enjoyed the storyline working its way up through society showing exactly how WMD’s really affect these areas. The narrator was impeccable.

Overall a recommended must read for the techies and the curious.

1 person found this helpful

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A must read

This is a very important, informative, and easy to comprehend read, written in a very conversational style. If it doesn’t get you mad or concerned then you didn’t read it. Which I insist you do, read.

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Entertaining read

A bit left leaning but I still enjoyed it, lots of good stories too, recommend it

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Brilliant analysis soon to be commonplace

This book spoke about things I had no idea about until I heard it. Now I see her point everywhere. Just more ways that a noose is drawing in around an unsuspecting publics neck . Definitely a worthwhile read

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must read for all

what a wonderful book showing the decide of rich and poor. she did a great job showing the direction of misused data is having on the struggling how how the math is forcing and keeping people down. determination use to account for something but when the numbers are all you are it makes it all the harder.

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What was that...

Mess of ideas. Should have just stuck to commentary on misuse of mathematical concepts.
The attempted political was strange and unnecessary (random comments about race and social constructs just thrown into a book supposedly focusing on the misuse of ... whatever this book thought it was about)
Social commentary was out of context and unfounded.
Sweeping claims about ML, its current state and potential future were just thrown in there, haphazardly throwing out concepts entire books are dedicated to.
Critisism of big tech companies was generic and shallow. Content I expect on someone's Facebook feed.

Second chapter is the only one worth listening to.

Complaining is easy, proposing solutions were hard.

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  • Jay
  • 2019-03-12

Excellent Audiobook

Very interesting and pertinent topic. The author provides a lot of insight into the adverse impacts of the darker side of data science.

The examples cited are very very diverse and relevant to the discussion. What makes this particular book so effective is the author's ability to abstract the mathematical details and provide very accessible explanations of how the math has impacted society in certain areas.

My only critique is that while using the term WMD is catchy, I think it is a bit overused in the book and the author should just stick to using terms like model, algorithm, etc.

Highly recommended.

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  • Laurent Bourgault-Roy
  • 2017-01-08

More are US social problems that WMD

A WMD, or weapon of math destruction, are usage of algorithm that end up being discriminatory toward some people, or that cause problem with their wide scale deployment. For example, an algorithm that identify poor people can deny them services that help them, making them poorer. The algorithm prediction become self-fulfilling and prevent people from improving their condition.  

The premise of the book is very good, and there are indeed a lot of good example of how misuse of big data algorithms can wreak havoc among society. The problem is that the author indignation push her away from what should have been the main subject of the book. 

In the course of the book, the author raise a lot of recurring problem with WMD, like the "Flock of the feathers" generalization, the "self-fulfilling" prediction, the "discriminating proxy variable ", the "non-appealable conclusion" problem, the "non-measurable important factor". But those categories of problem, which, in my opinion, should have been the focus of the book, take a backseat toward the real subject of the book: how much the United State has social problems.

Each chapter is written to for denounce a specific social problem in the US, like predatory ads toward the poor, racial discrimination toward minority, terrible working hour among low wage workers, and so on. Some of those subjects are indeed caused by WMD. But for some, the link with the purported subject of the book is a bit strenuous. In some case, the author even exclaims "well, that has nothing to do with WMD of course". And a lot of time, WMD are not the root cause of the problem, they only exacerbate an existing one. 

That leave you with a book that is more like a classical sociology book denouncing the ill of the American society, with some talk about big data sprinkled on top. If, like me, you are not an American, you may feel a bit left out by that book. This is a shame, because by refocusing the book on the generic problem caused by WMD that I described above, the book could have had a much broader appeal. Don't get me wrong: The problem O Neil talk about ARE important social problem. But they are very specific to her own country, and the militant tone can become grating. I felt at time that the author was not explaining to me how WMD work and how to deal with them, but was rather trying to force her opinion of how the world should be over me. She was dictating me how I should think, rather than helping me shape my own opinion.

In the end, I would have preferred a more objective tone and a better focus on WMD themselves, with conclusion that can be applied more broadly to everyone, not just US citizens.

71 people found this helpful

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  • Arseny
  • 2017-05-30

High-level banter of Occupy Wall Street minded author

I thought there would be at least something about the math. Nope. If I could recommend a better read / audible that would be "Algorithms To Live By" book.

31 people found this helpful

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  • Stephen
  • 2016-10-02

A fascinating and startling look at where big data is blind

This book is totally worth the listen for the intro and first chapter alone. It's very well-written and easy to follow, and manages to tell clear stories about how the software we use to assess teacher performance or insurance risk is all to often encoded with the prejudices and blind spots of the people who make it. It shows how that is already damaging equality and democracy, and warns of areas where it may get worse.

As a software designer, the one thing I would have loved from this book would be a little more depth about how software products might avoid these pitfalls. However, I'm probably coming at this book with unfair expectations, and it's likely a subject I just need to research more deeply.

Overall, if you enjoy podcasts like Freakonomics and Planet Money, you'll probably love this. Happy I listened!

24 people found this helpful

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  • Andrew
  • 2017-04-27

A diatribe about the unfairness in society

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

Nothing.

Would you ever listen to anything by Cathy O'Neil again?

No.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

It is well written and easy to listen to.

Any additional comments?

The author is a card carrying member of Occupy Wall Street. The entire book is a rant against the unfairness in society (e.g., poor people have bad credit because they are poor and society holds them back).

The algorithms and deep learning approach are not really analyzed in any depth but just serve as a convenient scapegoat for injustice.

There is nothing wrong with such a diatribe but it sure wouldn't sell many books and has been the topic of many, many books already.

23 people found this helpful

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  • Kelly W.
  • 2016-09-08

Save Yourself Some Time and Read A Pamphlet Instead

While the author makes some compelling points about the use of big data and how people can get caught up in "pernicious feedback loops," understand going in that she is an Occupy Wall Street sympathizer and has a strong left wing stance. Unfortunately I didn't understand this before my purchase and could have saved myself a lot of time by just reading a pamphlet instead.

While I would consider myself a centrist and am open to a lot of the arguments made by the left, some of this was just hard to stomach. (To be clear, she makes some valid points and gives the listener some interesting things to think about). The author is clearly out to prove a point about how the poor, minorities, and women are being kept down by The Man, which is now essentially labeled as "weapons of math destruction" or WMD's. The answer as usual is bigger government, more regulation & oversight, and socialist tendencies in order to provide justice.

In my view, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle and not on the fringes. If you're an OWS sympathizer, voted for Bernie, or think that capitalism stinks, this book is for you. If not, buyer beware and understand beforehand that you're going to be challenged to listen to 8+ hours of how everyone except the wealthy and privileged are being oppressed by WMD's.

Also, her narration is not the best. Kind of tedious at times.

12 people found this helpful

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  • k
  • 2016-09-06

Superb narration, beautifully written.

This is a must read! I thoroughly enjoyed the real world examples of how everything I do is a data point that is being used against me.

11 people found this helpful

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  • Derek
  • 2016-09-13

a must read for the modern economy

O'Neil makes a strong case for the increasing importance of ethics in data science. The evidence for discrimination, whether intentional or not, is compelling. This book is a must for data professionals and anyone concerned with growing inequality in the economy.

9 people found this helpful

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  • Michael
  • 2016-09-10

Experienced Insight and Issues Identified

The story is presented in a series of topics disclosures that compare by theme, data models can be made and used in ways that can damage society and make bad situations worse. Cathy O'Neil reveals how data models can be relied on with good intentions in mind, and by ignorance, dismissal or narrow-sightedness, can misrepresent, injure and derail people and societal function-ability.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Washington mom
  • 2020-11-02

Important book

Well written, well researched explanation of how algorithms can contribute to inequity, as well as possible solutions. Highly recommend!

2 people found this helpful

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  • Gilberto
  • 2020-10-26

Awakening!

Awesome book with scary facts we should know and tale action as soon as we can!

2 people found this helpful

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  • daniel villars
  • 2019-04-08

interesting topic highly prejudiced analysis

the writer has a good knowledge of the topic. She could have made a thorough an interesting analysis of it. however she ends up being highly biased and presents opinion rather than analysis. there there is no balance nor any counter argument presented.