AI Transparency and Fairness

A post on efforts to further bolster AI transparency and fairness by the AI World Society.

Learning algorithms find patterns in data they are given. However, in the processes by which the data is collected, relevant variables are defined and hypotheses are formulated that may depend on structural unfairness found in society, the paper suggests.

“Algorithms based on such data could introduce or perpetuate a variety of discriminatory biases, thereby maintaining a cycle of injustice,” the authors state. “The community within statistics and machine learning that works on issues of fairness in data analysis have taken a variety of approaches to defining fairness formally, with the aim of ultimately ensuring that learning algorithms are fair.”

The paper poses some tough questions. For instance, “Since, unsurprisingly, learning algorithms that use unfair data can lead to biased or unfair conclusions, two questions immediately suggest themselves. First, what does it mean for a world and data that comes from this world to be fair? And second, if data is indeed unfair, what adjustments must be made to learning algorithms that use this data as input to produce fairer outputs?”

Cause and effect is a challenging area of statistics; correlation does not imply causation, the experts say. Teasing out causality often involved obtaining data in a carefully controlled way. An early example is the work done by James Lindt for the Royal Navy, when scurvy among sailors was a health crisis. Lindt organized what later came to be viewed as one of the first instances of a clinical trial. He arranged 12 sailors into six pairs, and gave each pair one of six scurvy treatments thought at the time to be effective. Of the treatments, only citrus was effective. That led to citrus products being issued on all Royal Navy ships.

Whether fairness can be defined by computer scientists and engineers is an open question. “Issues of fairness and justice have occupied the ethical, legal, and political literature for centuries. While many general principles are known, such as fairness-as-proportionality, just compensation, and social equality, general definitions have proven elusive,” the paper states.

Moreover, “Indeed, a general definition may not be possible since notions of fairness are ultimately rooted in either ethical principle or ethical intuition, and both principles and intuitions may conflict.”

Mediation analysis is one approach to making algorithms more fair. Needless to say, the work is continuing.

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