When I was 16 years old and in my first year of A-Levels, I was really, really enjoying my Further Maths A-Level. I loved how I could find maths everywhere I went and I loved the Numberphile and 3Blue1Brown channels on YouTube. I used to watch one YouTube video every night before bed, and I first encountered Dr Hannah Fry on Numberphile, in her video The Mathematics of Crime and Terrorism.
What particularly interested me was how Hannah mentioned that crime and terror attacks were not completely independent events which means that when one event happens, the chances of another event happening afterwards increases. This slightly threw the maths off balance, as the Poisson distribution, which gives the probability of a number of independent events occurring in a fixed time, cannot account for the lack of independence between events. The Hawkes process does account for that and it sees events as being connected in time. For example, when you get burgled, the chances of you being burgled again soon afterwards increases as the burglars learn the layout of your house and where you keep your valuables.
I found it so interesting how you can use maths to predict just about everything, which is exactly what Hannah Fry’s research is based on.
Hannah researches trends in everyday life and sees how she can use maths to forecast the future and she is currently a lecturer at UCL, where she did her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
After I watched Hannah Fry from Numberphile, I started to see her everywhere! I watched her BBC programme on Ada Lovelace, called ‘Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing’ and I was so mesmerised by how well she presented and how enthusiastic about maths she really was!
She released a book, called ‘Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine’ which connected philosophy and ethics to mathematics. I read the whole book the night I bought it. In Hello World, Hannah wrote about how algorithms work for us, but also how they can work against us. She spoke about driverless cars and the ‘trolley problem’, which is a famous problem in which you’re riding a trolley and in the track in front of you, there are five people all tied up, but you can choose to change to the second track, where there is only one person tied up. I loved the book and I was delighted to find out that she was hosting a talk on her book, and I jumped at the chance to go! She talked more in-depth about AI (artificial intelligence) and it made me consider how my data can be used against me – I’ve started searching for flights in incognito mode now.
What really supported my idea that maths reflects the world was her talking about human judges versus AI judges. Human judges subconsciously can give different sentences, based on their prejudice and even their mood on that day. Using AI would provide consistency and objectivity, as they analyse and use previous sentences to give their judgement. However, it reflected how the system can be racist and classist, as the previous sentencing data could have included biased rulings that were influenced by a defendant’s race, gender or appearance, making the new sentence reflect that prejudice. It gave me a lot to think about and consider – but the best part was meeting the mathematician whose work revolved around what I love about maths the most: how it reflects real life.
This article has been written by Stemette, Hadiyah.
If you feel inspired, read Dr Hannah Fry’s book Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine and also listen to her podcast called The Curious Case of Rutherford and Fry.
Last updated December 2019.