The Role of Algorithms | Hannah Fry on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  •  “I think that it’s inevitable that if you’re good at something, you just find it all the more enjoyable” – Hannah Fry
  • If schools want students to like math more, teachers should put in the effort to demonstrate just how useful it is in the real world
  •  Algorithms can be incredibly useful but they can also backfire
    • “The real danger of relying too much on algorithms to detect those cancerous cells is that if you are too good at detecting them, you’re not just good at detecting the ones that then go on to be a problem, you’re also going to be good at detecting the ones that are nothing to worry about” – Hannah Fry
      • “Hence potentially causing huge numbers of people to have very serious and very invasive techniques like double mastectomies” 
  • “Math is really the biggest weapon we have on our side. We don’t have pharmaceutical interventions, we don’t have a vaccine yet and all we have really is the data and the numbers”Hannah Fry
    • The epidemiologists and mathematicians have been raising the alarm and helping drive government policies
      • “We don’t have a crystal ball to look into the future but really maths is the only thing that’s there guiding us” 
  • According to math, spend the first 37% of your dating life having fun and playing the field
    • After that period has passed, settle down with the next person that you find who is better than everyone else you’ve dated
  • The best relationships are the ones with low negativity thresholds or couples who speak up quickly about the things that annoy them
    • “It’s couples where you’re continually repairing and resolving very, very tiny issues in your relationship because otherwise you risk bottling things up and then not saying anything and then coming home and being totally angry” – Hannah Fry

Intro

Books Mentioned

  • Hannah read Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh when she was 16 and it helped solidify her decision to be a mathematician 
  • The book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil, talks about the dangers of algorithms and manipulating big data
  • The Mathematics of Love by Hannah Fry

Getting Into Math

  • What got Hannah into math?
    • Hannah’s mother bought her a math textbook when she was 11 years old and made her do a few exercises before letting her go play outside
      • The following school year, Hannah noticed she was much better at the subject than her classmates and she started to look at math as fun
        • “I think that it’s inevitable that if you’re good at something, you just find it all the more enjoyable”Hannah Fry
  • If schools want students to like math more, teachers should put in the effort to demonstrate just how useful it is in the real world
    • Math is everywhere in life, without it, smartphones wouldn’t be possible
  • Hannah read Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh when she was 16 and it helped solidify her decision to be a mathematician
    •  It tells the story of the search for a proof of Fermat’s last theorem and explores how many mathematicians such as Évariste Galois tried and failed to provide a proof for the theorem
      • “I think that you need to humanize maths to make people want to find out more about it, but I also think that the maths itself needs to be humanized if it’s to properly fit in with our society.” – Hannah Fry

The Pros & Cons of Algorithms

  • The book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil, talks about the dangers of algorithms and manipulating big data
  •  Algorithms can be incredibly useful but they can also backfire
    • Algorithms designed to scan images and check for early signs of cancer have proven to be just as good as skilled doctors
    • However, in one algorithm, it was determining whether a person had skin cancer based not on their lesion, but whether there was a ruler photographed next to it
      • A lot of cancerous cells actually aren’t something to worry about, there’s is a spectrum from low to high risk
        • “The real danger of relying too much on algorithms to detect those cancerous cells is that if you are too good at detecting them, you’re not just good at detecting the ones that then go on to be a problem, you’re also going to be good at detecting the ones that are nothing to worry about”Hannah Fry
          • “Hence potentially causing huge numbers of people to have very serious and very invasive techniques like double mastectomies” 
  • “You can’t just build an algorithm, put it on a shelf, and decide whether you think it’s good or bad completely in isolation. You have to think about how that algorithm actually integrates with the world that you’re embedding in.” – Hannah Fry

Thoughts on Open-source

  • Even if we open-source algorithms, only people with deep technical experience will understand them after a long time
  • Another con of open-sourcing code is that you’ll likely see a slowdown in new technology because it decreases the economic incentive for people to develop new code
    • “If you publish things as open-source then there’s a problem with that, you risk slowing down innovation…which I don’t think you’d want to do either” – Hannah Fry
  • Hannah’s solution: Make a code-version of the FDA where a third-party organization stress-tests it and check them for bias
  • “There’s no silver bullet to…addressing some of the many problems algorithms raise” Hannah Fry

To Use Or Not Use Algorithms

  • Humans are actually not that good at making consistent decisions 
    • “We nuclear power stations for instance, as much as possible you want to leave that to the algorithms…likewise in flying airplanes. I think you want to leave that to autopilot as much as you possibly can.” – Hannah Fry
  • There are some cases where algorithms can be highly illogical
    • In one case, an algorithm wanted to give a young boy a longer jail sentence because he had sex with a minor. However, the boy was underage as well and both parties had consented to the act.
      • “I think it’s just an extraordinary example of how wrong these decisions can go if you hand them over to the algorithm” – Hannah Fry

Thoughts on COVID

  • “Maths is really the biggest weapon we have on our side. We don’t have pharmaceutical interventions, we don’t have a vaccine yet and all we have really is the data and the numbers”Hannah Fry
    • Epidemiologists and mathematicians have been raising the alarm and helping drive government policies
      • “We don’t have a crystal ball to look into the future but really maths is the only thing that’s there guiding us” 
  • How has math been helpful during these times?
    • To understand the spread of the virus, you need to look at how far people travel and how often they come into contact with others

Applying Math To Love

  • Although you can’t write an equation for love, there are still loads of aspects of math in your love life. Hannah talks more about this in her book The Mathematics of Love by Hannah Fry
    • “There’s math in how many people you date before you decide to settle down. There is math in the data of what photographs work well on online dating apps or websites. There are loads of maths in designing your table plan for your wedding to make sure that people that don’t like each other don’t have to sit together, incidentally.” – Hannah Fry
      • There are lots of little places where you can use math in your love life
  • According to math, spend the first 37% of your dating life having fun and playing the field
    • After that period has passed, settle down with the next person that you find who is better than everyone else you’ve dated
  • The best relationships are the ones with low negativity thresholds or couples who speak up quickly about the things that annoy them
    • “It’s couples where you’re continually repairing and resolving very, very tiny issues in your relationship because otherwise you risk bottling things up and then not saying anything and then coming home and being totally angry” – Hannah Fry
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Notes By Alex Wiec

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