Saturday, July 18, 2020

Book Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

Weapons of Math Destruction has been out for a couple of years now and it is one of those books that a lot of people reference. I finally got around to reading my copy this week.  For those of you who are not familiar with it, the book talks about algorithms involving huge amounts of data and how they are used and misused.These WMD are involved in increasing parts of our lives from teacher evaluations, to credit scores, to policing, to getting hired for a job. Companies make assumptions that the algorithms are fair, impartial, and that they get the results they are advertised to provide. Often all of those assumptions are wrong.

In some ways I think the point could have been made with one or two chapters but providing a multitude of examples is definitely informative and convincing. The book is more than a little scary but I think that is the point. We should be concerned.

Those of us involved in computing, perhaps especially those of us teaching computing, need an eye opening book like this. It can help us do better and perhaps avoid some of the unintended consequences that this book so clearly outlines.

I’d love to assign this book as required reading to students. I could probably get away with that at the university level but high school students are both reading adverse and already loaded with a lot of reading. I think what I would do at the high school level would be to place a couple of copies on course reserve and assign specific chapters to individual students to read. I’d have them submit both an oral and a written report of their chapter. Some group discussions would also be a plus. This is a natural for an AP CS Principles course but I think it would fit in elsewhere as well.

We need people in computing who can look at technology and think about unintended consequences and, perhaps more importantly, ask what are the impacts on society of what we are thinking about doing? Is it all just about money and the bottom line or are we actually making people’s lives better?

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