Donald Trump Is Like A Biased Machine Learning Algorithm

A quick observation: Donald Trump is not like normal people. In particular, he doesn't have any principles to speak of, that might guide him. No moral compass. That doesn't mean he doesn't have a method. He does, but it's local rather than global.
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Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign rally at the Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. Two days after Trump said that President Barack Obama had founded Islamic State, and a day after he insisted that he meant what he said, the Republican presidential nominee reversed himself on Friday and claimed the statement was nothing more than sarcasm. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign rally at the Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. Two days after Trump said that President Barack Obama had founded Islamic State, and a day after he insisted that he meant what he said, the Republican presidential nominee reversed himself on Friday and claimed the statement was nothing more than sarcasm. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bear with me while I explain.

A quick observation: Donald Trump is not like normal people. In particular, he doesn't have any principles to speak of, that might guide him. No moral compass.

That doesn't mean he doesn't have a method. He does, but it's local rather than global.

Instead of following some hidden but stable agenda, I would suggest Trump's goal is simply to "not be boring" at Trump rallies. He wants to entertain, and to be the focus of attention at all times. He's said as much, and it's consistent with what we know about him. A born salesman.

What that translates to is a constant iterative process whereby he experiments with pushing the conversation this way or that, and he sees how the crowd responds. If they like it, he goes there. If they don't respond, he never goes there again, because he doesn't want to be boring. If they respond by getting agitated, that's a lot better than being bored. That's how he learns.

A few consequences. First, he's got biased training data, because the people at his rallies are a particular type of weirdo. That's one reason he consistently ends up saying things that totally fly within his training set -- people at rallies -- but rub the rest of the world the wrong way.


[Trump] could be replaced by a robot that acts on a machine learning algorithm with a bad definition of success -- or in his case, a penalty for boringness...

Next, because he doesn't have any actual beliefs, his policy ideas are by construction vague. When he's forced to say more, he makes them benefit himself, naturally, because he's also selfish. He's also entirely willing to switch sides on an issue if the crowd at his rallies seem to enjoy that.

In that sense he's perfectly objective, as in morally neutral. He just follows the numbers. He could be replaced by a robot that acts on a machine learning algorithm with a bad definition of success -- or in his case, a penalty for boringness -- and with extremely biased data.

The reason I bring this up: first of all, it's a great way of understanding how machine learning algorithms can give us stuff we absolutely don't want, even though they fundamentally lack prior agendas. Happens all the time, in ways similar to the Donald.

Second, some people actually think there will soon be algorithms that control us, operating "through sound decisions of pure rationality" and that we will no longer have use for politicians at all.

And look, I can understand why people are sick of politicians, and would love them to be replaced with rational decision-making robots. But that scenario means one of three things:

1. Controlling robots simply get trained by the people's will and do whatever people want at the moment.

Maybe that looks like people voting with their phones or via the chips in their heads. This is akin to direct democracy, and the problems are varied -- I was in Occupy after all -- but in particular mean that people are constantly weighing in on things they don't actually understand. That leaves them vulnerable to misinformation and propaganda.

2. Controlling robots ignore people's will and just follow their inner agendas.

Then the question becomes, who sets that agenda? And how does it change as the world and as culture changes? Imagine if we were controlled by someone from 1000 years ago with the social mores from that time. Someone's gonna be in charge of "fixing" things.

3. Finally, it's possible that the controlling robot would act within a political framework to be somewhat but not completely influenced by a democratic process.

Something like our current president. But then getting a robot in charge would be a lot like voting for a president. Some people would agree with it, some wouldn't. Maybe every four years we'd have another vote, and the candidates would be both people and robots, and sometimes a robot would win, sometimes a person. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's not utopian. There's no such thing as pure rationality in politics, it's much more about picking sides and appealing to some people's desires while ignoring others.

Cathy O'Neil is the author of the upcoming book "Weapons of Math Destruction."

This post originally appeared on mathbabe.org.

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