Data Sheet—How to Fight the Growing Scourge of Algorithmic Bias in AI

September 14, 2018, 12:53 PM UTC
Joy Buolamwini speaks in Boston
Researcher Joy Buolamwini, seen here speaking in Boston at an Affectiva-sponsored conference on Sept. 6, 2018, has started the Algorithmic Justice League to combat algorithmic bias in AI and machine learning apps.
Courtesy of Affectiva and Steve Nisotel Photography

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Joy Buolamwini was a graduate student at MIT a few years ago when she was working on an art and science project called the Aspire Mirror. The set up was supposed to use readily available facial recognition software to project images onto people’s faces. But the software couldn’t identify African-American Buolamwini’s own face—unless she put on a white mask. She tells the story in more detail in a TED talk.

As she encountered other examples of what’s become known as algorithmic bias, Buolamwini decided to conduct a more rigorous review. Putting three well-known facial recognition programs to the test (including ones from IBM and Microsoft), she found that all had a significantly harder time correctly identifying darker skinned faces, particularly of women.

Her next step has been to attack the problem of algorithmic bias head on, forming the Algorithmic Justice League, a group of real life superheroes with the mission of ferreting out and eliminating bias in the machine learning and artificial intelligence programs that are being used not just for mundane tasks like identifying your friends in a Facebook photo, but also making life-changing decisions in the realms of healthcare, insurance, and criminal justice.

I first met Buolamwini just last week, when I moderated a panel on the ethics of AI at a conference in Boston sponsored by AI software developer Affectiva. She and her fellow panelists, Rumman Chowdhury, global lead for responsible AI at Accenture, and Mark Latonero of the Data & Society Research Institute, offered more than a few ways to combat the problems we discussed.

To start, Buolamwini believes that “who codes matters,” because more diverse teams of programmers can be more aware of preventing algorithmic bias from creeping in. The sets of data used to train facial recognition or other kinds of apps need to be diverse, too. That may have been why the program Buolamwini used for her Aspire Mirror couldn’t identify black faces. Finally, she supports deeper consideration of the laws and practices around potential uses of AI. It’s a conversation that needs to be had immediately.


Always leave them wanting more. Jeff Bezos did not reveal the location of Amazon's HQ2 during a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, saying only that the decision will be made by the end of the year. He also discussed his new $2 billion philanthropic fund, saying it would expand its focus over time. "I believe in the power of wandering," Bezos said. "All of my best decisions in business and life have been made with heart, intuition, guts—not analysis."

Break a leg. The world of podcasting continues to mature. Popular podcast producer Stuff Media, which makes “Stuff You Should Know” and “Stuff You Missed in History Class," among others, was bought for a reported $55 million by iHeartMedia, the biggest radio station owner in the country and also a force of its own in podcasting.

Strut your stuff. After introducing chips for servers and gamers based on its new Turing platform, Nvidia rolled out the latest version of its supercomputing GPU card for doing AI work, the Tesla T4. The card, designed for jobs like speech or image recognition, can calculate at speeds up to 260 teraflops, or trillions of operations per second, the company said.

Tough act to follow. On Wall Street, Photoshop developer Adobe Systems beat analyst expectations for its fiscal third quarter and offered a better-than-expected forecast for its next quarter, as well. Revenue jumped 24% to $2.3 billion and adjusted earnings per share of $1.73 were up 57%. Adobe's shares, which have gained 53% so far this year and hit an all-time high on Wednesday, were about unchanged in premarket trading on Friday morning.

The show must go on. The four big mobile carriers announced an effort dubbed Project Verify to help customers more securely log in to web sites and apps. The service would rely on authenticating AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile customers via a single app on their phones for gaining access to participating third-party sites and apps.

Taking this show on the road. A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants Google to explain what it's doing in China and whether it will censor search results at the behest of the Chinese government. Meanwhile, a handful of Google employees including senior research scientist Jack Poulson have reportedly resigned in protest over the effort to return to the Chinese search market, known internally as Dragonfly.


A few longer reads that I came across this week that may be appealing for your weekend reading pleasure:

Where in the World Is Larry Page? (Bloomberg Businessweek)

While Alphabet faces existential challenges, its co-founder is exercising his right to be forgotten.

Google Knows Where You’ve Been, but Does It Know Who You Are? (New York Times Magazine)

The overwhelming volume of this information demonstrates just how deep, and inescapable, our relationships with the company have become. And it can be sneakily transformative. To see months of your own search history repeated back to you in list form is to suffer a strange mixture of your most mundane and anxious—and largely forgotten—moments.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The Untold Story of Cryptography Pioneer Elizebeth Friedman (Brain Pickings)

While computing pioneer Alan Turing was breaking Nazi communication in England, eleven thousand women, unbeknownst to their contemporaries and to most of us who constitute their posterity, were breaking enemy code in America—unsung heroines who helped defeat the Nazis and win WW II.

He Saw Our Darkness (Bitter Southerner)

Tomorrow will mark the 15th anniversary of Arkansas icon Johnny Cash’s death. Today, we reassess the Man in Black’s career—a life spent wrestling through music with the demons and saviors that haunt almost every Southerner.


Autonomous vehicles are about to disrupt everything from the truck driving profession to public transportation systems to public safety. But maybe not as soon as everyone expects, Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims posits in his latest piece. The technology is suddenly disappointing developers in myriad ways and has fallen into the “trough of disillusionment” on Gartner's hype scale. There are many implications, Mims writes:

This means worries—mainly in academic circles—that America’s truck drivers will face “eroding job quality” because of autonomy are premature. It means cities don’t yet need to wonder what will become of their mass transit. And it means Uber and Lyft aren’t likely to ditch human drivers soon, and their investors should value them accordingly.

In the meantime, we’ll have to adjust to the reality that autonomous driving could be headed for narrower—but still transformative—applications. And if our desire for driverless taxis and delivery vans is strong enough, we might need to create dedicated roads for them.

Cars can’t learn to drive simply by being trained on data about how real humans do it, no matter how much data you have, says Gary Marcus, New York University professor and former head of Uber’s AI division. “That’s why companies like Waymo have to break [self driving] into pieces that can be engineered rather than treating it like one giant data problem,” he adds.


Elon Musk's SpaceX Has Selected Its First Space Tourist and Will Soon Reveal Who It Is By Grace Dobush

Salesforce Leads 21 Companies With Plan to Fight Climate Change Through Technology By Natasha Bach

U.S. Lawmakers Sound Alarm Over the Threat of 'Deep Fakes' By Jonathan Vanian

Fired Uber Exec Sues Former Uber PR Chief Over Losing His Job By Glenn Fleishman

Facebook Expands Video and Photo Fact-Checking Efforts With Outside Partners By Jonathan Vanian

Apple Is Ditching the iPhone's Headphone Dongle—But You Can Buy It for $9 By Don Reisinger


In case you didn't hear, new iPhones and Apple watches went on sale for pre-order today (though the lower-end XR model isn't available until next month). While Americans can pay up to $1449 for the most expensive model, an iPhone XS Max with 512 GB of storage, the price actually varies quite a bit around the world due to exchange rates and other factors. So The Verge helpfully checked dollar-equivalent prices and found that the most expensive place in the world to buy an iPhone is Italy, where that model costs $1,971. Che palle!

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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