1. Our Algorithmic Overlords: I saw someone joke on Twitter recently that the best way to do a literature review was to complain on Twitter that "no one is studying..." and just use the incensed replies that come pouring in. It's an interesting form of trolling. This week Cathy O'Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction and perhaps better known as mathbabe.org, had an Op-Ed in the New York Times saying, "Academics aren't paying attention to our algorithmic overlords." Of course, I agree with the need to pay attention--hence this regularly featured topic--but it's a curious framing that academics aren't paying attention. In fact, all of the examples she gives of areas where academics need to be paying attention to algorithms and their effects are areas of intense academic work. Say the use of sentencing algorithms. Or teacher assessments. Or dynamic scheduling. And it's not just the specific instances. There's also work on the big picture of the use of algorithms and big data in policy making. Or simply understanding how companies will approach gathering and using data and algorithms (How could I not link to a paper so excellently titled as "Seeing Like a Market"?). Or how about a whole academic center "examining the social implications of artificial intelligence"? The conspiracy theorist in me couldn't help noting that the center, at NYU, was officially announced the day after O'Neil's op-ed which proposes an academic center, though they have a 2nd annual report on the use of AI and 10 recommendations to guide research and accountability. I can hardly be opposed to academic research centers, but it seems to me that what's missing is not academics paying attention or research centers devoted to the topic, but a Consumer Algorithm Protection Board. Yes, this is a pipe dream given the dire outlook for the Consumer Financial Protection Board, but it is a pipe dream I'm particularly fond of. Anyone want to help me make the case for it?
2. Household Finance: Before the algorithmic overlords item gets ridiculously long, let's move on to something that could fit either under algorithms, protection boards, or household finance. Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, which uses psychometrics to assess creditworthiness, has a piece on the FICO blog about how their testing for personality traits like impulsiveness and delayed gratification predicts default rates. It's such a good example of why I've been a fan of EFL while being queasy at the same time, it almost felt like I was being trolled. On the positive side it's an operationally relevant way of assessing borrowers who otherwise would be shut out of access to credit. On the queasy side, there's apparently huge variation in different cultures (while the metric remains predictive), and real questions about the immutability of the features they are testing--which cuts both ways. If they're mutable there's a question about what we are measuring; if they're immutable, what do we do about people who lost the "present bias" lottery? It's a good thing to protect people from themselves by not offering them credit they are likely to default on, but it still leaves me queasy nonetheless. In terms of others being trolled, here's a piece about Refinery29's ongoing series where women share a week-long financial diary, and then readers rip apart their life choices. I'm not entirely sure whether it's the ones sharing or the ones critiquing that are the trolls, perhaps both. And since we're on the topic of diaries and I've already gone fishing for help on one research interest of mine, here's another: I read this week that more than 100,000 puertoriquenos have migrated to Central Florida since this fall's hurricanes. Wouldn't it be great to do financial diaries of those households? It's a really unique opportunity, wouldn't be very expensive to do, and it breaks my heart to see it go to waste. If you think so too, call me.