Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Robots are Just Us


BostonGlobe  |  Even AI giants like Google can’t escape the impact of bias. In 2015, the company’s facial recognition software tagged dark skinned people as gorillas. Executives at FaceApp, a photo editing program, recently apologized for building an algorithm that whitened the users’ skin in their pictures. The company had dubbed it the “hotness” filter. 

In these cases, the error grew from data sets that didn’t have enough dark-skinned people, which limited the machine’s ability to learn variation within darker skin tones. Typically, a programmer instructs a machine with a series of commands, and the computer follows along. But if the programmer tests the design on his peer group, coworkers, and family, he’s limited what the machine can learn and imbues it with whichever biases shape his own life. 

Photo apps are one thing, but when their foundational algorithms creep into other areas of human interaction, the impacts can be as profound as they are lasting.

The faces of one in two adult Americans have been processed through facial recognition software. Law enforcement agencies across the country are using this gathered data with little oversight. Commercial facial-recognition algorithms have generally done a better job of telling white men apart than they do with women and people of other races, and law enforcement agencies offer few details indicating that their systems work substantially better. Our justice system has not decided if these sweeping programs constitute a search, which would restrict them under the Fourth Amendment. Law enforcement may end up making life-altering decisions based on biased investigatory tools with minimal safeguards.

Meanwhile, judges in almost every state are using algorithms to assist in decisions about bail, probation, sentencing, and parole. Massachusetts was sued several years ago because an algorithm it uses to predict recidivism among sex offenders didn’t consider a convict’s gender. Since women are less likely to reoffend, an algorithm that did not consider gender likely overestimated recidivism by female sex offenders. The intent of the scores was to replace human bias and increase efficiency in an overburdened judicial system. But, as mathematician Julia Angwin reported in ProPublica, these algorithms are using biased questionnaires to come to their determinations and yielding flawed results.

A ProPublica study of the recidivism algorithm used in Fort Lauderdale found that 23.5 percent of white men were labeled as being at an elevated risk for getting into trouble again, but didn’t re-offend. Meanwhile, 44.9 percent of black men were labeled higher risk for future offenses, but didn’t re-offend, showing how these scores are inaccurate and favor white men. 

While the questionnaires don’t ask specifically about skin color, data scientists say they “back into race” by asking questions like: When was your first encounter with police? 

The assumption is that someone who comes in contact with police as a young teenager is more prone to criminal activity than someone who doesn’t. But this hypothesis doesn’t take into consideration that policing practices vary and therefore so does the police’s interaction with youth. If someone lives in an area where the police routinely stop and frisk people, he will be statistically more likely to have had an early encounter with the police. Stop-and-frisk is more common in urban areas where African-Americans are more likely to live than whites.This measure doesn’t calculate guilt or criminal tendencies, but becomes a penalty when AI calculates risk. In this example, the AI is not just computing for the individual’s behavior, it is also considering the police’s behavior.

“I’ve talked to prosecutors who say, ‘Well, it’s actually really handy to have these risk scores because you don’t have to take responsibility if someone gets out on bail and they shoot someone. It’s the machine, right?’” says Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab at MIT.