Machines are getting schooled on fairness

You’ve probably encountered at least one machine-learning algorithm today. These clever computer codes sort search engine results, weed spam e-mails from inboxes and optimize navigation routes in real time. People entrust these programs with increasingly complex — and sometimes life-changing — decisions, such as diagnosing diseases and predicting criminal activity.

Machine-learning algorithms can make these sophisticated calls because they don’t simply follow a series of programmed instructions the way traditional algorithms do. Instead, these souped-up programs study past examples of how to complete a task, discern patterns from the examples and use that information to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Unfortunately, letting machines with this artificial intelligence, or AI, figure things out for themselves doesn’t just make them good critical “thinkers,” it also gives them a chance to pick up biases.

Investigations in recent years have uncovered several ways algorithms exhibit discrimination. In 2015, researchers reported that Google’s ad service preferentially displayed postings related to high-paying jobs to men. A 2016 ProPublica investigation found that COMPAS, a tool used by many courtrooms to predict whether a criminal will break the law again, wrongly predicted that black defendants would reoffend nearly twice as often as it made that wrong prediction for whites. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group also showed that the crime prediction tool PredPol could lead police to unfairly target low-income, minority neighborhoods (SN Online: 3/8/17). Clearly, algorithms’ seemingly humanlike intelligence can come with humanlike prejudices.

“This is a very common issue with machine learning,” says computer scientist Moritz Hardt of the University of California, Berkeley. Even if a programmer designs an algorithm without prejudicial intent, “you’re very likely to end up in a situation that will have fairness issues,” Hardt says. “This is more the default than the exception.”