The Truth About Algorithms

I’m animated!!


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The Era of Plausible Deniability in Big Data Continues

Today I published a new Bloomberg Opinion piece on how Amazon’s sexist recruiting algorithm is not a surprise to anyone, but is framed as one because the tech bros are trying to maintain plausible deniability:

Amazon’s Gender-Biased Algorithm Is Not Alone


For my other Bloomberg pieces, go here.

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TomTown Ramblers performing next Saturday, October 13th at The Rockwood!

My amazing, fantastic, and lovable band the TomTown Ramblers is performing at The Rockwood Music Hall next weekend! Buy tickets here, they’re only ten bucks each.



We’re performing mostly original songs thanks to our hugely talented singer songwriting members Blair Bodine and Jamie Kingston (with a new song by Jake Appel!). I’m kind of just amazed I’m allowed to be in this band, they’re so freaking talented.

I hope you can come! We will be selling Ramblers merch, including t-shirts and shakers.


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Guest post: China’s Social Credit System

This is a guest post by Jianyin Roachell, Social Innovation, SAS-certified Data Intelligence Developer, US-China-EU relations.

My name is Jianyin Roachell, Chinese American and I have been researching how digital innovation and big data can impact socio-economics and political economy in China. In this guest blog, I hope to enlighten you with instances of how big data and AI may change the role of firms and governments, what is China’s National Social Credit System, and perhaps collaborations between business and governments to increase upward social mobility using big data. Allow me to make it clear, I am not promoting or degrading any Chinese social policies in this blog.


To understand why I do what I do, allow me to introduce my background. I am a Chinese-born-American and grew up in Memphis, TN, the city where Martin Luther King Jr’s died and known for our civil rights movements. Memphis is notorious for the dysfunctional education system and gun-violence (two of my friends were killed). With lingering residual discriminations from Jim-Crow South and police brutality anxiety, the city of Memphis where I grew up suffered social distrust between the at-risk communities and the rest of the middle class. I really witness some of the stark contrast between upper and lower class while growing up in social the social circles. After reading Cathy’s book, “Weapons of Math Destruction”, I was inspired to pursue my passion in social innovation and digital social justice. I am currently a Master’s student studying Economics and Computer science. My background is in statistics and data analytics. My interests lie in the center of Entrepreneurship-Innovation, Socially Responsible Algorithmic Design, and data ethics.

I always wanted to travel the world, Why not go to China… I asked myself. That’s where lots of things are happening, and after all, I am Chinese. My China experience has led me through some amazing self-discoveries and also discover a few glimpses of what the future may hold within socio-economics and policy.

China’s AI

I predict that China’s AI systems and technology will surpass that of the West for two reason. Namely, the sheer size of China’s population and very ambiguous data privacy laws. Companies are building machine learning models that train on 1.3 Billion people’s personal data points. I predict that China’s AI technologies will be more accurate and more scalable than that of the West in the near future. The data privacy laws are not very established, giving companies and local governments opportunities to exploit them for unethical profit-seeking and political agendas.

The penetration of big data and algorithms.

In China, where the government plays the role of ‘parent’ culturally, it is comparable to our own upbringing: “do you not eat your vegetables properly? Then no television tonight!”

With the arrival of AI and big data, in the consumer market, firms are beginning to play the role of Mother, figuratively, while the Government is playing the role of the Father. Mothers on average give you treats to incentivize you to do something good, while dads are there to give your butt a good beating when you misbehave.

In China, consumers are sucking on the tit of business discounts and freemium products, while the government is monitoring bad behavior through a very data-driven censorship system. By 2020, China will roll out a national social credit system to quantify every citizen’s social worth in society through what they buy and how they behave. This is the socialism engineering at its finest.

Role of Firms in relations to Big data

In the US, tech companies like Google and Facebook own the user data; whereas, in China not only do the Tech Giants (Baidu Alibaba Tencent or BAT) but also The Government can access the consumer data. China is currently in transition from a manufacturing manual labor-based economy into a skilled-labor and high-tech consumption economy.

What China needs now is to really develop its credit system and open up the credit market. Inevitably, the BAT’s shopping-spree for start-ups and mergers have led to the construction China’s first social credit system. How? When BAT companies purchase smaller companies, they also buy their data access. With the huge amount of data gathered from multiple child-companies, BAT giants are able to use big-data to gamify China’s consumer market and hype up demands for products, goods, and services. This is the narrative that will define the 21st century as China finds the next chapter for sustainable growth. The construction of a national social credit system will engineer new social behavior and public ethics in an entirely different way we understand in the West.

There are different attitudes that East and West perceive AI tech. The East tend to apply AI for the common good and thinks AI can be a virtual partner or a quasi-member in society (example: Japan Society for AI book of ethics present that AI should be a quasi-member of society); whereas in the West, AI is perceived as a tool to generate more value, save more money, and increase further productivity. Because of this difference in outlook, the future of AI development may also shape how we live our daily lives in each of the West-East spheres.

Social Credit Score: Big Brother?

To understand why China is doing this, first we must understand China’s culture. With Confucianism as the nucleus of familial code of conduct, dating back thousands years of Chinese Culture, there lies the value of “the natural order between Authority and the People.” This means that it has always been in China’s DNA to trust and obey the authorities even in the ancient chinese imperial times. The western media describes:
“The worst-case scenario is a form of high-tech Stalinism for our brave new world.” But actually there are two different systems that makes up the National Social Credit Score:

1) the commercial credit system (similar to US’s FICO and German Schuffa) and

2) social management system (big-brother-like mechanism).

The commercial credit system: is suppose to measure your financial credit and how likely you’re likely to pay back your loans. Scores range from [350-950]. Loans, credit markets, and mortgage markets will be heavily dependent on this score. This score will reflect all the accumulation of all your digital purchases and how trustworthy are you. China is filled with business con-men, and this system can actually hold those bad business accountable and financially punish them before they produce bad products into the market.

Social management system: put miscreants and offenders on a blacklist, where the government will extract data from the judicial and law enforcement data-base and pass the data to Ant Financial to decrease the offenders’ commercial credit scores. The lower the credit score, the less benefits you will get from commercial digital vendors.

Socio-economic Implications and Going Forward

Dating: Because financial capacity is an important aspect when looking for a partner, Sesame Credit is also integrated into various dating sites, so that users can see the scores of their potential partner. This is not a new idea. Matchmakers in ancient times have matched couples heavily on their socioeconomic background. However, in our modern society, over time this may further solidify the classes and may even amplify the effects, where the lower-class will stay poor, and upper class will stay wealthy. This will more likely exacerbate wealth inequality as their children progress forward into their lives; thus upward social mobility will be limited. The current literature has been focusing on the “big brother” side of the Chinese Social credit system; instead the argument should be asking how big data can offer a different solution to this problem. There are so many opportunities for firms and government to work together to increase the value of the people, bring them out of poverty, and give policyholders the intelligence to redistribute wealth to the groups are most at-risk of unequal opportunity. I call this the era of “Digital Social Mobility.”

Technology can help us even up the playing field and bring equal opportunities. Please see my research poster here to learn more about this topic. I believe truly that if we put out resources together we can sparking a new movement that can redefine and reimagine the human experience in this 21st century.

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New Politics and Philosophy Podcast: The Badlands

September 22, 2018 3 comments

This is a guest post by Toby Napoletano, a philosophy PhD who is working on a politics and philosophy podcast that is the subject of this post.




I’ve taught quite a few introductory ethics courses to undergraduates over the past five years or so. During that time, I’ve had the good fortune of having lots of really good, thoughtful students who were fairly politically engaged—enough to at least be aware of some of the major moral and political issues that dominate political discussion.

But I’ve noticed a bit of a trend with these students that I think should be worrying to those who identify themselves as being broadly on the political left. Namely, for lots of the students who identify themselves as being generally “liberal”, the most salient political commentators for them tend to be quasi-intellectual right-wing libertarian types like Ben Shapiro. While they might disagree with him, they respect him as someone who uses “facts” and “logic”—i.e. who at least gives the appearance of trying to reason with them.

I don’t think this is an accident. What is distinctive about libertarians—even those like Ben Shapiro—is that they keep their deep philosophical commitments right out in the open, and they don’t hesitate to appeal to them. Why are minimum wage laws unjustified, according to the libertarian? Well, at bottom, because doing so would prevent people from entering into certain voluntary economic agreements with each other—i.e. ones where labor is exchanged for less than minimum wage. Such laws would infringe on the liberty of individuals to enter into those agreements, and government, as a rule, cannot do this. Government is meant to protect this sort of liberty, in addition to individuals’ basic rights to property and physical security.

There are plenty of ways to resist this argument, but doing so requires engaging with the underlying philosophical commitments. For instance, under what conditions is labor exchanged for a wage voluntarily in the relevant sense? Is it voluntary in the sense that counts if the alternatives are to work for a pittance or to starve, or to forego medical treatment, etc.? And further, what’s special about rights to physical security, property, and freedom of contract? Might there be other basic rights which governments have obligations to protect like a right to subsistence or essential medical care?

But my thoughtful students (and presumably plenty of thoughtful non-students) don’t see anybody on the left raising these questions or engaging with the issues on this level. Consequently, they don’t have good answers to the deeper philosophical challenges that might be raised against leftist positions, and some of them will conclude that there just aren’t good underlying justifications for those positions and abandon them altogether.

Consider the case of economic inequality. For folks on the left, the bulk of the conversation has been spent on the statistics illustrating the state of inequality in the U.S. And this is for good reason—the numbers are staggering. They then conclude that there is something basically immoral and unjust about this inequality. But then the response from those who are less concerned with inequality is just that the great inequalities in wealth and income simply reflect differences in merit, and so they do not reflect any basic injustice. The progressive left, they charge, is obsessed with the idea of everyone being economically equal. What justice requires (as they often put it) is not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity, citing the ideals espoused in the American Dream.




Interesting—an argument invoking the ideas of merit, opportunity, and justice. Of course, it happens to be a strawman—I don’t know of anyone who could charitably be interpreted as advocating for a completely equal distribution of wealth. Nevertheless, the argument suggests that we need to go a bit deeper, and wrestle with potentially difficult, philosophical questions. For instance: What’s the relation between opportunity and justice? What is the relation between economic inequality and opportunity? What is merit and how does it relate to economic outcome? Would meritocracy even be a good thing?

One of the reasons progressives care so much about economic inequality is that they agree that justice requires some semblance of equality of opportunity, but recognize the myriad ways in which extreme economic inequality undermines equal access to opportunity—both economic and educational. These disparities in access to opportunity then further entrench the economic inequalities (and expose the idea that the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is merit-based as being clearly false).

Putting the issue of opportunity aside, there is a basic human rights issue that the extreme inequality in the U.S. makes pressing. Namely, it’s not just that there are large gaps between the rich and poor, but that the poor are actually deeply impoverished, struggling and often unable to lead a decent life. The presence of extraordinary wealth amid this deprivation suggests a failure to protect basic rights, and a failure which could be easily prevented. Even if those who end up poor, by and large, did have the same opportunities as the wealthy (which they clearly do not), it still wouldn’t follow that the situation is a justifiable one.

Arguments like these are the kind that need to be made and understood with some clarity if one is going to be justified in believing that economic inequality (to take just one example)  is, in fact, a serious problem. These arguments are what fill in the gap between the statistics demonstrating the inequality and the moral conclusion that the inequality is unjust.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that there is real value to engaging with the philosophical dimensions of political issues. Not only is such engagement necessary to really understand some of the underlying disagreements, but there is strategic value to doing so as well. Commentators on the left do themselves and their positions a disservice by not engaging with the issues at greater depth, because there are plenty of good arguments in favor of those positions.

The aim of The Badlands Politics and Philosophy Podcast is to try to help fill this gap. On the podcast, a group of fellow philosophers (Michael Hughes, Hanna Gunn, Jared Henderson) and myself explore the philosophical dimensions of contemporary political issues. Along the way, we give a philosophical sketch and defense of a broadly “progressive” political outlook. If nothing else, we hope to help raise the standard of political discourse in some small way.

The podcast is aimed at a general audience and so isn’t meant to require any specialization in philosophy to enjoy. Early topics include money in politics, economic inequality and the myth of the American Dream, inequality of opportunity, the idea of American meritocracy, and issues concerning political discourse and political coverage in the media. In the near future, we plan to do episodes on the meaning of “capitalism”, the relationship between Milton Friedman and progressivism, the ethical implications of AI, the ethics of immigration, and lots more.

New episodes are released every Friday, and written pieces are posted regularly on

We are on Twitter at @TheBadlandsPod.



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Maybe This Financial System Can’t Be Fixed

September 14, 2018 4 comments

Hey my newest Bloomberg Opinion column is out:


Maybe This Financial System Can’t Be Fixed

Better risk management isn’t enough. We need a different paradigm.


For my other columns, go here.

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Tech Companies Need To Admit They Have A Problem

September 4, 2018 1 comment

My newest Bloomberg Opinion piece is out:


In a Way, Trump Is Right About Google’s Bias


For a list of all of my columns, go here.


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