Three very different sources of bias in AI, and how to fix them

Since our Science paper came out it's been evident that people are surprised that machines can be biased.  They assume machines are necessarily neutral and objective, which is in some sense true -- in the sense that there is no machine perspective or ethics.  But to the extent an artefact is an element of our culture, it will always reflect bias.

I think the problem is that people mistake computation for math.  Math really is pure, has certain truth, it's eternal, it would be the same without any particular sentient species looking at it. That's because math is an abstraction that doesn't exist in the real world.  Computation is a physical process. It takes time, energy, and space.  Therefore it is resource constrained.  This is true whether you are talking about natural or artificial intelligence. From a computational perspective there's little difference between these.

Click to see Joy Buolamwini's awesome work on fighting the second kind of AI bias I mention here.

People are smart because we are able to exploit the selected "best of" other people's computations.  We are super good at communicating (at least as animal species go), and we communicate the best and most useful ways of thinking.  The reason AI is making so much progress right now is because we've figured out how to transfer and represent what's already been computed by our culture or our biology into AI.  That's the first source of AI bias:  unintentionally uploading the implicit human biases that pervade our culture.  That's what we demonstrated with our Science paper.  There's no real way to fix this without fixing our culture first, so we need to compensate for it when we design our systems.

Prior to our paper coming out, the main source of AI bias people talked about was seen as a consequence of the lack of diversity of AI developers.  That is, the second source of AI bias is poorly-selected training data for machine learning, or poorly reasoned rules.  So for example training face recognition only on Caucasian faces.  This differs from the first source in that it's easier to address, though I don't think it's just a matter of hiring diverse programmers -- we can all occasionally make sexist errors, even women.  But nevertheless, when we detect these errors we can fix them, so we can expect that these types of AI biases should iteratively improve and hopefully eventually disappear.  Basically, solving this problem comes down to adequately testing systems.

But what I worry about most is actually the least-sexy kind of AI bias.  Many people are trying to make out that AI is now self-learning, or at least all programmed via machine learning.  I heard some fairly famous AI experts making that strikingly false claim at the Aspen Ideas Festival.  No algorithm spontaneously generates a software system or a robot. Every intelligent artefact has system design behind it.  Quite a lot of the algorithms that affect people's lives are just macros someone programmed in a spread sheet -- macros they may claim are proprietary.  And the third source of AI bias is evil programmers.  Or corporations, or governments.  Someone sits down and says "I'm a white nationalist and I want other races to get less money."  The way to deal with this is to insist on the right to explanation, on due process.  All algorithms that affect people's lives should be subject to audit.  

That isn't to say there can be no trade secrets.  Medicine has tons of trade secrets and IP, but it also has government oversight.  That's what AI needs now.

I've been invited to meetings by architects and lawyers recently, and it's amazing to see how those disciplines utterly take for granted cooperation with government, engagement in policy, training in legal responsibilities and so forth.  ICT is just lagging behind.  We've been affecting people's lives as fundamentally as architects for decades now.  It's time our discipline matures and we accept what that means in terms of accountability.


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