This is a guest post by Brian Hedden (University of Sydney).
(3000 words; 14 minute read)
Predictive and decision-making algorithms are playing an increasingly prominent role in our lives. They help determine what ads we see on social media, where police are deployed, who will be given a loan or a job, and whether someone will be released on bail or granted parole. Part of this is due to the recent rise of machine learning. But some algorithms are relatively simple and don’t involve any AI or ‘deep learning.’
As algorithms enter into more and more spheres of our lives, scholars and activists have become increasingly interested in whether they might be biased in problematic ways. The algorithms behind some facial recognition software are less accurate for women and African Americans. Women are less likely than men to be shown an ad relating to high-paying jobs on Google. Google Translate translated neutral non-English pronouns into masculine English pronouns in sentences about stereotypically male professions (e.g., ‘he is a doctor’).
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted the possibility of algorithms being biased (e.g., in virtue of encoding biases found in their programmers, or the data on which they are trained), Ryan Saavedra, a writer for the conservative Daily Wire, mocked her on Twitter, writing “Socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claims that algorithms, which are driven by math, are racist.”
I think AOC was clearly right and Saavedra clearly wrong. It’s true that algorithms do not have inner feelings of prejudice, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be racist or biased in other ways.
But in any particular case, it’s tricky to determine whether a given algorithm is in fact biased or unfair. This is largely due to the lack of agreed-upon criteria of algorithmic fairness.
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