Social algorithms and the Weapons of Math Destruction

Cathy O'Neil holding her new book: Weapons of Math Destruction at a Barnes & Noble in NYC.

Cathy O’Neil holding her new book: Weapons of Math Destruction at a Barnes & Noble in New York city.

In reference to intelligent robots taking over the world, Andrew Ng once said: “I don’t work on preventing AI from turning evil for the same reason that I don’t work on combating overpopulation on the planet Mars.” Sure, it will be an important issue to think about when the time comes. But for now, there is no productive way to think seriously about it. Today there are more concrete problems to worry about and more basic questions that need to be answered. More importantly, there are already problems to deal with. Problems that don’t involve super intelligent tin-men, killer robots, nor sentient machine overlords. Focusing on distant speculation obscures the fact that algorithms — and not necessarily very intelligent ones — already reign over our lives. And for many this reign is far from benevolent.

I owe much of my knowledge about the (negative) effects of algorithms on society to the writings of Cathy O’Neil. I highly recommend her blog mathbabe.org. A couple of months ago, she shared the proofs of her book Weapons of Math Destruction with me, and given that the book came out last week, I wanted to share some of my impressions. In this post, I want to summarize what makes a social algorithm into a weapon of math destruction, and share the example of predictive policing.

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Drug holidays and losing resistance with replicator dynamics

A couple of weeks ago, before we all left Tampa, Pranav Warman, David Basanta and I frantically worked on refinements of our model of prostate cancer in the bone. One of the things that David and Pranav hoped to see from the model was conditions under which adaptive therapy (or just treatment interrupted with non-treatment holidays) performs better than solid blocks of treatment. As we struggled to find parameters that might achieve this result, my frustration drove me to embrace the advice of George Pólya: “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.”

IMO6 LogoIn this case, I opted to remove all mentions of the bone and cancer. Instead, I asked a simpler but more abstract question: what qualitative features must a minimal model of the evolution of resistance have in order for drug holidays to be superior to a single treatment block? In this post, I want to set up this question precisely, show why drug holidays are difficult in evolutionary models, and propose a feature that makes drug holidays viable. If you find this topic exciting then you should consider registering for the 6th annual Integrated Mathematical Oncology workshop at the Moffitt Cancer Center.[1] This year’s theme is drug resistance.
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Multiplicative versus additive fitness and the limit of weak selection

Previously, I have discussed the importance of understanding how fitness is defined in a given model. So far, I’ve focused on how mathematically equivalent formulations can have different ontological commitments. In this post, I want to touch briefly on another concern: two different types of mathematical definitions of fitness. In particular, I will discuss additive fitness versus multiplicative fitness.[1] You often see the former in continuous time replicator dynamics and the latter in discrete time models.

In some ways, these versions are equivalent: there is a natural bijection between them through the exponential map or by taking the limit of infinitesimally small time-steps. A special case of more general Lie theory. But in practice, they are used differently in models. Implicitly changing which definition one uses throughout a model — without running back and forth through the isomorphism — can lead to silly mistakes. Thankfully, there is usually a quick fix for this in the limit of weak selection.

I suspect that this post is common knowledge. However, I didn’t have a quick reference to give to Pranav Warman, so I am writing this.
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Argument is the midwife of ideas (and other metaphors)

In their classic book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue — very convincingly, and as I’ve reviewed before — that “[m]etaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally” and that these conceptual metaphors are central to shaping our understanding of and interaction with the world we are embedded in. Based on the authors’ grounding in linguistics, part of their case proceeds by offering examples of, by my count, over 58 different metaphors and metonymies in our everyday language; and given their book’s intentions, they chose a particularly pertinent first case: ARGUMENT is WAR.[1]

They show this metaphor in action through some example of common usage (pg. 4):

What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong!Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.

Notice that the even the xkcd I borrowed for visual reinforcement is titled ‘Duty Calls’, an expression usually associated with a departure for war. With our awareness drawn to this militaristic structure, Lakoff and Johnson encourage the reader to ask themselves: how would discussions look if instead of structuring arguments adversarially, we structured them after a cooperative activity like dance?[2]

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Evolutionary dynamics of acid and VEGF production in tumours

Today was my presentation day at ECMTB/SMB 2016. I spoke in David Basanta’s mini-symposium on the games that cancer cells play and postered during the poster session. The mini-symposium started with a brief intro from David, and had 25 minute talks from Jacob Scott, myself, Alexander Anderson, and John Nagy. David, Jake, Sandy, and John are some of the top mathematical oncologists and really drew a crowd, so I felt privileged at the opportunity to address that crowd. It was also just fun to see lots of familiar faces in the same place.

A crowded room by the end of Sandy's presentation.

A crowded room by the end of Sandy’s presentation.

My talk was focused on two projects. The first part was the advertised “Evolutionary dynamics of acid and VEGF production in tumours” that I’ve been working on with Robert Vander Velde, Jake, and David. The second part — and my poster later in the day — was the additional “(+ measuring games in non-small cell lung cancer)” based on work with Jeffrey Peacock, Andriy Marusyk, and Jake. You can download my slides here (also the poster), but they are probably hard to make sense of without a presentation. I had intended to have a preprint out on this prior to today, but it will follow next week instead. Since there are already many blog posts about the double goods project on TheEGG, in this post I will organize them into a single annotated linkdex.

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Modeling influenza at ECMTB/SMB 2016

This week, I am at the University of Nottingham for the joint meeting of the Society of Mathematical Biology and the European Conference on Mathematical and Theoretical Biology — ECMTB/SMB 2016. It is a huge meeting, with over 800 delegates in attendance, 308 half-hour mini-symposium talks, 264 twenty-minute contributed talks, 190 posters, 7 prize talks, 7 plenary talks, and 1 public lecture. With seventeen to eighteen sessions running in parallel, it is impossible to see more than a tiny fraction of the content. And impossible for me to give you a comprehensive account of the event. However, I did want to share some moments from this week. If you are at ECMTB and want to share some of your highlights for TheEGG then let me know, and we can have you guest post.

I did not come to Nottingham alone. Above is a photo of all the current/recent Moffitteers that made their way to the meeting.

I did not come to Nottingham alone. Above is a photo of current/recent Moffitteers that made their way to the meeting this year.

On the train ride to Nottingham, I needed to hear some success stories of mathematical biology. One of the ones that Dan Nichol volunteered was the SIR-model for controlling the spread of infectious disease. This is a simple system of ODEs with three compartments corresponding to the infection status of individuals in the population: susceptible (S), infectious (I), recovered (R). It is given by the following equations

\begin{aligned}  \dot{S} & = - \beta I S \\  \dot{I} & = \beta I S - \gamma I \\  \dot{R} & = \gamma I,  \end{aligned}

where \beta and \gamma are usually taken to be constants dependent on the pathogen, and the total number of individuals N = S + I + R is an invariant of the dynamics.

As the replicator dynamics are to evolutionary game theory, the SIR-model is to epidemiology. And it was where Julia Gog opened the conference with her plenary on the challenges of modeling infectious disease. In this post, I will briefly touch on her extensions of the SIR-model and how she used it to look at the 2009 swine flu outbreak in the US.
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Computational kindness and the revelation principle

In EWD1300, Edsger W. Dijkstra wrote:

even if you have only 60 readers, it pays to spend an hour if by doing so you can save your average reader a minute.

He wrote this as the justification for the mathematical notations that he introduced and as an ode to the art of definition. But any writer should heed this aphorism.[1] Recently, I finished reading Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.[2] In the conclusion of their book, they gave a unifying name to the sentiment that Dijkstra expresses above: computational kindness.

As computer scientists, we recognise that computation is costly. Processing time is a limited resource. Whenever we interact with others, we are sharing in a joint computational process, and we need to be mindful of when we are not carrying our part of the processing burden. Or worse yet, when we are needlessly increasing that burden and imposing it on our interlocutor. If you are computationally kind then you will be respectful of the cognitive problems that you force others to solve.

I think this is a great observation by Christian and Griffiths. In this post, I want to share with you some examples of how certain systems — at the level of the individual, small group, and society — are computationally kind. And how some are cruel. I will draw on examples from their book, and some of my own. They will include, language, bus stops, and the revelation principle in algorithmic game theory.
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Hamiltonian systems and closed orbits in replicator dynamics of cancer

Last month, I classified the possible dynamic regimes of our model of acidity and vasculature as linear goods in cancer. In one of those dynamic regimes, there is an internal fixed point and I claimed closed orbits around that point. However, I did not justify or illustrate this claim. In this post, I will sketch how to prove that those orbits are indeed closed, and show some examples. In the process, we’ll see how to transform our replicator dynamics into a Hamiltonian system and use standard tricks from classical mechanics to our advantage. As before, my tricks will draw heavily from Hauert et al. (2002) analysis of the optional public good game. Studying this classic paper closely is useful for us because of an analogy that Robert Vander Velde found between the linear version of our double goods model for the Warburg effect and the optional public good game.

The post will mostly be about the mathematics. However, at the end, I will consider an example of how these sort of cyclic dynamics can matter for treatment. In particular, I will consider what happens if we target aerobic glycolysis with a drug like lonidamine but stop the treatment too early.

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Multiple realizability of replicator dynamics

Abstraction is my favorite part of mathematics. I find a certain beauty in seeing structures without their implementations, or structures that are preserved across various implementations. And although it seems possible to reason through analogy without (explicit) abstraction, I would not enjoy being restricted in such a way. In biology and medicine, however, I often find that one can get caught up in the concrete and particular. This makes it harder to remember that certain macro-dynamical properties can be abstracted and made independent of particular micro-dynamical implementations. In this post, I want to focus on a particular pet-peeve of mine: accounts of the replicator equation.

I will start with a brief philosophical detour through multiple realizability, and discuss the popular analogy of temperature. Then I will move on to the phenomenological definition of the replicator equation, and a few realizations. A particular target will be the statement I’ve been hearing too often recently: replicator dynamics are only true for a very large but fixed-size well-mixed population.

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Systemic change, effective altruism and philanthropy

Keep your coins. I want change.The topics of effective altruism and social (in)justice have weighed heavy on my mind for several years. I’ve even touched on the latter occasionally on TheEGG, but usually in specific domains closer to my expertise, such as in my post on the ethics of big data. Recently, I started reading more thoroughly about effective altruism. I had known about the movement[1] for some time, but had conflicting feelings towards it. My mind is still in disarray on the topic, but I thought I would share an analytic linkdex of some texts that have caught my attention. This is motivated by a hope to get some guidance from you, dear reader. Below are three videos, two articles, two book reviews and one paper alongside my summaries and comments. The methods range from philosophy to comedy and from critical theory to social psychology. I reach no conclusions.

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