Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

Book–From college admittance to the actuarial models that determine what you pay for health insurance, decisions of who gets what in our society are increasingly made by algorithms rather than individuals. Former Wall Street quantitative analyst Cathy O’Neil exposes that, while many algorithms claim impartiality, they in fact end up entrenching systemic inequality. For example, many employers are increasingly using applicants’ credit scores as a factor in choosing employees, with the rationale that reliability with paying debt is correlated with reliability generally. Long term unemployed and lower income people are likely to have lower credit scores due to the higher credit utilization rates that typically accompany a shortage of funds, and this practice unfairly bars them from the very employment that would lift them out of their circumstances. O’Neil has plenty of other incisive examples of opaque, badly designed algorithms wreaking havoc on people’s lives from birth to death, but her thesis is that unless an algorithm is transparent, fair, and carefully considered, it tends to reinforce the status quo and penalize marginalized groups disproportionately.

Despite having the word “math” in the title, which tends to scare people off, Weapons of Math Destruction is written in an accessible, plainspoken style that doesn’t require you to be particularly mathematically-minded to follow along. O’Neil’s writing has a gift for making complicated topics simple and will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell.