Fri, 9 February 2018
Algorithms, Algorithmic Discrimination, and Autonomous Vehicles with Caleb Watney
Today's guest is Caleb Watney of the R Street Institute. In our conversation, we discuss algorithms, particularly with respect to their role in judicial decision making. Later in the conversation, we discuss the algorithms that will one day replace ape brains as the primary controllers of our cars.
Caleb wrote a Cato Unbound essay in response to an article by Cathy O'Neil. O'Neil, a mathematician, argues that algorithms could potentially lead us astray. Her book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy has sounded the alarm about the potential harms of an over-reliance on algorithms.
In Caleb's view, O'Neil has pushed too far in the anti-algorithm direction. He points out that private companies have used algorithms to generate amazing innovations. Government is a different story:
"The most compelling concerns about the improper use of AI and algorithms stem primarily from government use of these technologies. Indeed, all the tangible examples of harm O’Neil cites in her essay are the result of poor incentives and structures designed by government. Namely, hiring models at a public teaching hospital, teacher value-added models, recidivism risk models, and Centrelink’s tax-fraud detection model. The poor results of these kinds of interactions, in which governments purchase algorithms from private developers, could be viewed primarily as a failure of the government procurement process. Government contracting creates opportunities for rent-seeking, and the process doesn’t benefit from the same kinds of feedback loops that are ubiquitous in private markets. So it should be no surprise that governments end up with inferior technology."
We discuss the merits and demerits of algorithms, how different private and public incentives interact with algorithms, and the difficulties in creating algorithms that can be fair and transparent. Caleb's ultimate solution for many of the problems associated with algorithms used by the government is for those algorithms to be open source in order to foster public scrutiny of their processes and outcomes.
During the conversation, Caleb alludes to this paper by Kleinberg, Mullainathan, and Raghavan, which shows that there are three competing definitions of algorithmic fairness that cannot all be achieved simultaneously.
Fri, 12 January 2018
This episode of the podcast features two guests, Zach and Kelly Weinersmith. Zach is the author of SMBC Comics, a popular webcomic that sometimes deals with advanced concepts in science, philosophy, economics, and other fields. Kelly is a professor in the Biosciences department of Rice University. Together they co-authored Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything.
To quote the book's description,
In this smart and funny book, celebrated cartoonist Zach Weinersmith and noted researcher Dr. Kelly Weinersmith give us a snapshot of what's coming next--from robot swarms to nuclear fusion powered-toasters. By weaving their own research, interviews with the scientists who are making these advances happen, and Zach's trademark comics, the Weinersmiths investigate why these technologies are needed, how they would work, and what is standing in their way.
In this fun and lively conversation, we discuss some of the technologies discussed in the book: space elevators, asteroid mining, augmented reality, and programmable matter. We also discuss the tragic life of Gerald Bull, Canadian space cannon enthusiast.
Fri, 27 October 2017
My guest today is Kevin Leyton-Brown, he is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia.
Kevin's work involves not only computer science topics such as artificial intelligence, but also game theory, and the intersection between the two. Our topic for today is an app that Kevin co-founded called Kudu, which uses double auctions to help Ugandan farmers trade more effectively.
Kevin was interested in using his skills to help people in the developing world, so during a sabbatical seven years ago, he resolved to go to a country in sub-Saharan Africa to do just that. He settled on Uganda and, after living there for a time, noticed something peculiar about the market for agricultural goods there. In the city, you would sometimes find vendors selling goods at very high prices, and even running out. Meanwhile, in the countryside, vendors would have so much stock they would be selling at extremely low prices, even rotting before they could be sold.
Kevin, along with his partners John Quinn and Richard Ssekibuule, set out to help the locals seize these apparent arbitrage opportunities by constructing a platform to allow buyers and sellers in these markets to trade with one another at competitive prices. Most Ugandans have cell phones. Not fancy smartphones (as I wrongly guessed) but basic flip phones. So Kevin and his partners decided to set up a platform by which people could make bids and asks using a basic text-message system, and that system turned into Kudu.
The platform has facilitated $1.5 million USD worth of confirmed trades, and it has made the prices of agricultural goods much more transparent for everyone trading in these markets.