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Weapons of Math Destruction (Cathy O’Neil)

On the afternoon of Friday, August 23, 2019, groups of first-year students and faculty leaders will discuss Weapons of Math Destruction as part of New Student Orientation for the Class of 2023.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated.

But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this urgent and necessary book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: for example, if students can’t get a loan because a lending model deems them too risky (by virtue of their zip code), they can then be cut off from the kind of education that could help them advance, creating a “toxic cocktail for democracy.”

Weapons of Math Destruction helps prepare us for not only gathering and analyzing data, but also creating the algorithms that govern critical aspects of our lives. It raises awareness of how data affect us and recognizes our collective responsibility to use our skills to enhance our society.

In July 2019, Weapons of Math Destruction will be available to students and discussion leaders through an e-book download, as well as in print for discussion leaders.

Incoming first-year students will automatically be signed up for the Penn Reading Project. Faculty and senior academic staff are cordially invited to take part as discussion leaders on August 23. For more information and to sign up, visit