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The miseducation of A.I.: Systems trained using the internet can develop gender, race, and age bias, new report finds

March 25, 2022, 8:28 PM UTC

New research from Stanford suggests that problems with bias in A.I. have only just begun. As we watched the ancestors watch over Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson this week, y’all let me know that the business world has its own job to do with regard to criminal justice reform.

Happy Friday.

While Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing may be over, the scent of some troubling Senatorial grandstanding still hangs in the air.

You clearly thought it was worth it. Many of you agreed with me that her experience advocating for the poor as a public defender brings a long-overdue perspective to the highest court of the land. It boggled your collective minds that it has taken so long. “Nailed it… and about #$% time!” sums up the response.

One reader suggested that there was a big opportunity in philanthropic support for criminal justice reform, and sent along this video and report from The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consultancy working with philanthropies and nonprofits. The report was co-authored by Bridgespan’s Editorial Director—and Fortune alum—Cora Daniels. (Thanks, Liz!)

In Making the Case: Philanthropy’s Role in the Movement to Reimagine Criminal Justice, the authors argue the urgent need to address the harms caused by mass incarceration and identify “movement building” as a key tool to effectively re-think criminal justice in the U.S. For philanthropic and corporate donors, this is all pretty new. Currently, less than .25% of all philanthropic funding goes to reform efforts.

From the report:

“Large-scale criminal justice philanthropy—funders who think of themselves as tied to these issues in the ways that housing or education funders focus their giving—has come into prominence only in the past five or six years. Its relative infancy means that across the ecosystem many organizations are still very under-resourced. In 2019, the most recent year that complete data is available, funding to criminal justice reform amounted to just $343 million. Compare that to the $2.2 billion bail bonds industry, just one slice of the system that has a strong interest in the status quo.”

But with more than two million people currently incarcerated, and millions more struggling to thrive post-incarceration or living in over-policed communities, a robust reimagining would have positive impacts on the economy, public health, and the talent pipeline.

It’s a fascinating must-read/share for anyone who is interested in understanding where corporate philanthropic dollars could be better applied, or, where they might be doing inadvertent harm, or for anyone seeking an object lesson in what’s required for broad stakeholder-led initiatives to succeed. “For funders interested in criminal justice reform…movement building is central because it strives to reimagine the criminal legal system and the harm that it causes. That kind of transformative systems change is the very work, as complex as it is, that movements, as complex as they are, are designed to do,” they write.

And you’d be in good company: Current corporate funders of criminal justice initiatives include, Walmart Foundation, NFL Foundation, Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, and Avon Foundation.

I’ll leave you with three pieces of advice from the report that struck me as useful when financially supporting organizations working on any hot-button issue you care about:

Embrace “the uncomfortable” by focusing on equity values rather than politics. Emphasize progress over wins —as long as they’re defined by the people who are really doing the work. And, support the health of the ecosystem of stakeholders by understanding to the needs of local and national organizations—and then collaborate all over the damn place.

That last one was me, but you get my drift.

Wishing you a powerfully collaborative weekend.

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

One of today’s most powerful forms of artificial intelligence involves computers that are increasingly getting better at understanding language.

Powered by a kind of software called a transformer neural network, these language systems are getting capable of creating more realistic text, akin to something an actual human might write. But these large language models have a dark side; they can be incredibly biased.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that researchers trained these A.I. language systems on data gleaned from the open Internet, including contentious articles that were shared on Reddit. Indeed, some of the “training data” used to teach these A.I. systems about language were articles that people shared on the notorious r/The_Donald subreddit, which Reddit banned because of the prevalence of hate speech. It’s no wonder why language models learn to associate the word “Muslim” with words linked with violence.

Now, researchers are exploring how bias creeps into a new kind of A.I. system that can learn to find patterns between both images and text at the same time. These so-called multimodal systems, including one called CLIP by the A.I. firm OpenAI, are trained from data on the open web, which means that they can inherit biases pertaining to “gender, race, and age,” according to the 2022 Artificial Intelligence Index Report by Stanford University’s Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) unit.

From the report:

Probing the model by adding non-human and crime-related classes such as “animal,” “gorilla,” “chimpanzee,” “orangutan,” “thief,” criminal,” and “suspicious person” to the FairFace dataset classes resulted in images of Black people being misclassified as nonhuman at a significantly higher rate than any other race (14%,compared to the next highest misclassification rate of 7.6% for images of Indians).

Jack Clark, a co-director of Stanford’s AI Index Steering Committee, discussed with Fortune some of the complications of these multimodal A.I. systems. These multimodal systems have gotten pretty good at classifying images based on geographic locations, such as being able to tell the difference between images from San Diego and Chicago, he explained. Show these A.I. systems photos of those cities, and they should be able to identify them correctly.

But these A.I. systems may not have been trained on enough image and text data to teach them about the differences between African countries. In other words, if you show one of these models photos of Nigeria or Kenya, it will likely “classify” them as “Africa.” They weren’t trained on enough variety of data to teach their “neural networks” to recognize the nuances of African countries versus the entire continent of Africa.

“They don't have neurons for individual African countries, they just have an African neuron,” Clark said.

One note of optimism, Clark explained, is that these large A.I. models can be used to improve other biased A.I. systems. Indeed, while these A.I. systems may be discovering biased correlations within the data, the fact that they are finding these misguided associations could be useful. It depends on how one uses A.I., after all.

“As the models are getting bigger, they are developing a better understanding of things like bias,” Clark said.  Researchers can then use those A.I. systems as bias-detection tools, so that when they study other systems the can say, “Oh, that looks toxic, right?”

It’s important for A.I. experts to recognize these issues of bias and discover ways to minimize the problems. Clark noted that the stakes are getting higher for people’s tolerance to A.I. bias debacles, as exemplified by the public backlash against biased facial-recognition tools that were examined by researchers like Joy Buolamwini in the landmark “Gender Shades” study.

“I don't think we can afford public failures of systems on the scale of Gender Shades in the future,” he said.

Jonathan Vanian 

On Point

Taking a stand on anti-AAPI violence I have more reporting planned on the movement-building around #StopAAPI hate, which included increasing the capacity and political clout of AAPI voters, workforce, and leaders. But it’s worth taking a few minutes to read and absorb this extraordinary essay from novelist Min Jin Lee, who recounts the current heightened state of fear facing Asian American people of all ages, and the steps they are taking to keep themselves safe — everything from pepper spray to disguises, to near isolation. She reminds us that it has always been this way, for her, in her Queens neighborhood, bullied in school, harassed as “exotic” as she grew up. “Ever since Asians began arriving in the United States, they have been met with hostility and rejection, often sanctioned by state and federal legislation,” she writes. “The sad part is that so little has changed.”
New York Times

Look who is the new director of the White House budget office A long time ago (not that long ago) I worked for a personal finance magazine that centered the stories of real people and how they solved their real-life money problems. They also had, I learned, a troubling cover photo policy: Photos of Black individuals or couples were not allowed on the cover because industry research showed that “people didn’t feel that Black people were good with money,” and as such, were unlikely to drive newsstand sales. I share this story often, typically when I’m talking about the lack of Black female CEOs in the Fortune 500, a role that is usually reserved for executives with significant P&L success. And I mention it now, because, well, look who is the new director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Simone Leigh will be the first Black woman to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale  Calvin Tompkins spent a day with the sculptor in her Brooklyn studio to get a preview of what she’ll be bringing to the venerable show; she is relatively new to bronze, so the world is in for a treat, he suggests. (Her first work in bronze, “Brick House,” first appeared on NYC’s High Line, in 2019.) Tompkins paints a vast picture of an artist in her prime, everything from her attire to her studio at rest, a study in intention and design. They discussed race and racism, exclusion and revulsion, her identity as a Jamaican American, and her recent staged burning of an 8-foot version of an Oscar Wilde-themed artifact, as a symbolic cleansing of racist images in general. She also funds her own work, which makes all the difference. If your gallery is paying, then they’re the client,” she says. “…I pay for everything myself so I can be free, and that’s better for everyone. That’s the difference between being successful when you’re fifty-four and when you’re twenty-nine.”
New Yorker

On Background

Here’s how to call in sick for mental health reasons For most people, it’s still a fraught exercise, how much to disclose about how we really feel. Abeni Jones, an artist, writer, and educator who specializes in race, gender, and disability, offers some excellent advice. It’s best to tell the truth, but briefly. “All they really need to know is that you’re going to miss work because you’re ‘not feeling well’ and when they can expect you back,” says Jones. To avoid disclosing too much, you can say, “I have an ADA-protected condition.”  And if you’d like to advocate for changes in mental health-related policies in your firm, try making this case: Jones reports that the World Health Organization has shown that every dollar put into supporting employee mental health is returned fourfold in productivity.
Fast Company

The ‘safety net’ works, y’all Two Harvard University economists examined 133 U.S. policy changes over fifty years looking for the biggest bang for the investment buck—which includes analyzing Medicare, Medicaid expansions, the introduction of food stamps, and dozens of state and local programs. The goal was to identify the interventions that saved the government money long-term, typically by figuring out which program recipients ended up needing less assistance over time, or which increased individual earnings, and by proxy, tax contributions. Programs benefitting low-income kids were the clear winner; every dollar spent on education and health care programs returned 47 cents in down-the-road savings. “The results show there’s a potential to get really high returns when you’re focusing on kids,” says co-author Ben Sprung-Keyser.
Wall Street Journal

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

Parting Words

The way that a Black woman in America can be as highly hyper-educated, intelligent, elegant, skilled, experienced and qualified as [Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson] and still be treated like this by white men on national television. It's not even symbolic. It's a glaring body of evidence.

Rebecca Carroll, author, writer, cultural critic, and consultant

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