Digital & Computational Studies is all about intersections. It could be between genres, musical phenomena, political opinions, art, travel, dance, anything! Technology’s potential to revolutionize the way that we interact with these fields is ever growing, especially with the arrival of artificial intelligence and the increasingly efficient development of code. This lends itself to a multitude of possibilities for intertwinement between technology and any one of these fields. After all, we use data everyday to make important life decisions. It’s becoming increasingly relevant to investigate the ways in which we insert technology into our daily lives, so as to more clearly grasp its effects and potential drawbacks.
Late October, acclaimed mathematician Cathy O’Neil spoke at Bowdoin College on exactly this, presenting on the destructive power of algorithms. O’Neil received her PhD from Harvard University, is the founder of O’Neil Risk Consulting & Algorithmic Auditing, and recently testified for a Senate Committee Hearing calling for restrictions to prevent online extremism. Broadly speaking, O’Neil’s lecture focussed on the connections between human life and algorithms: health-wise, socially, psychologically, and beyond.
For the most part, people trust mathematics and data. It’s numbers. How could it be wrong? O’Neil argued that the perception of algorithms as objective is fundamentally misguided and occurs as a result of the hidden nature of algorithms and programming. O’Neil’s analysis of AI marketing explained that algorithms are laden with the opinion of its creator. She articulated numerous examples of how these algorithms are pervasive, hidden, and deeply ingrained in institutionalized structures: from standardized tests that evaluate teachers to predictive algorithms that shape policing in America. Since algorithms are complicated, hidden, and largely inaccessible to those of us without programming experience, the danger is that algorithms are blindly trusted. Despite this, O’Neil encourages us all to be skeptical and question the programs that shape the world around us.
Below, Math and Economics major Lucas Sheridan shares his takeaways from the talk.
By Doevy Estimphile & Lilo Bean