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Three Algorithm Reads

A few links.

How algorithms rule our working lives,” by Cathy O’Neil, in the Guardian:

These algorithmic “solutions” are targeted at genuine problems. School principals cannot be relied upon to consistently flag problematic teachers, because those teachers are also often their friends. And judges are only human, and being human they have prejudices that prevent them from being entirely fair — their rulings have been shown to be harsher right before lunch, when they’re hungry, for example — so it’s a worthy goal to increase consistency, especially if you can rest assured that the newer system is also scientifically sound.

The difficulty is that last part. Few of the algorithms and scoring systems have been vetted with scientific rigour, and there are good reasons to suspect they wouldn’t pass such tests. For instance, automated teacher assessments can vary widely from year to year, putting their accuracy in question. Tim Clifford, a New York City middle school English teacher of 26 years, got a 6 out of 100 in one year and a 96 the next, without changing his teaching style. Of course, if the scores didn’t matter, that would be one thing, but sometimes the consequences are dire, leading to teachers being fired.

Why Facebook should kill Trending News once and for all,” by Gillian Branstetter, the Daily Dot

Even if Facebook wanted out of managing a team of editors, it should certainly put less faith in whatever secretive algorithm is managing the list now. It’s a common saying in the study of artificial intelligence that it’s easier to design a software that can run a restaurant than it is a robot that can bus a table. Jobs that require relatively little mental processing can be difficult for a machine lacking the coordination and physical memory of a human. Although editing is not quite a physical task, it still requires a level of complex understanding and contextual observance that machines have often not provided.

“What Litigation Finance is Really About,” by Joshua Hunt, the New Yorker.

In reality, however, there is little new about what Legalist does. Commercial litigation finance began in the late nineties and has gradually grown into a three-billion-dollar industry dominated by big banks and hedge funds. The lenders they back tend to finance class-action, medical-malpractice, and personal-injury lawsuits that have a good chance of ending in a monetary award, but not without outside funding to cover expert witnesses, investigators, or the kinds of fees that pile up when a wealthy defendant attempts to stall. The returns can be significant: in 2010, a Citigroup-backed finance company secured an eleven-million-dollar profit on its thirty-five-million-dollar investment in lawsuits brought by workers who developed illnesses after working at Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For plaintiffs, annual interest rates as high as fifteen or even twenty per cent can make litigation finance a costly path to justice. In 2010, for instance, the New York Times reported that a woman injured in a 1995 car accident ended up owing lenders some fifty thousand dollars more than her settlement after the case was resolved. But, because the financing of lawsuits is considered an asset purchase and not a loan by regulators, plaintiffs and attorneys, both of whom can seek outside financing, pay their backers only if the suit is successful. And sometimes third-party funding is the only recourse for plaintiffs with little money, according to Anthony Sebok, a litigation-finance expert and law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Story published on Sep 1, 2016.