Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are becoming deeply embedded in our everyday lives, from facial recognition to predictive policing algorithms. However, there is growing concern that these systems may perpetuate or even amplify existing human biases, leading to discriminatory outcomes. This article will examine how bias can creep into AI systems whiles also revealing real-world impacts of biased AI data with some possible solutions.
What is AI Bias?
Algorithmic bias refers to errors or prejudices in computer systems that lead to unfair or discriminatory results. This can occur in a number of ways:
Biased training data
If the data used to train an AI model reflects existing societal biases, the algorithm will reproduce these biases. For example, if a facial recognition system is trained primarily on images of white men, it may be less accurate at identifying women and people of colour.
Poorly selected training data
Models trained on incomplete or unrepresentative data sets can lead to biased outcomes. Key groups and scenarios may be underrepresented.
Problematic data labeling
If humans manually labelling training data are influenced by conscious or unconscious bias, these biases will be propagated through the model.
Shortcuts in modelling
Many AI systems use techniques like generalisation and clustering to improve efficiency. However, these can perpetuate broad stereotypes that disadvantage marginalised groups.
Lack of diversity
Homogeneous teams building AI systems may overlook issues that create bias against groups underrepresented among developers.
Once deployed, biased algorithms can impact real-world data, skewing it further. For example, over-policing certain neighbourhoods due to algorithmic predictions creates more arrest data, further entrenching bias.
Examples of Algorithmic Bias Causing Real-world Harm
There are already many concerning examples of algorithmic bias causing harm in people’s lives:
- Recidivism prediction tools used in the US criminal justice system have been shown to be racially biased, overestimating re-offence rates for black defendants by as much as twice the rate of white defendants. This leads to harsher sentencing.
- Facial analysis programs from many major tech companies were found to have error rates 10 to 100 times higher for women of colour compared to white men. This leads to problems with identification and accessing services.
- Speech recognition software still has higher error rates for women, non-native speakers and some minorities. This severely limits accessibility and equality.
- Targeted advertising platforms have enabled alarming discrimination, such as showing recruitment ads for high-paying executive jobs primarily to younger white men.
- Credit approval algorithms have denied services to qualified applicants, suggesting digital redlining against minorities is occurring. This restricts access to loans and financial services.
- Healthcare algorithms have demonstrated racial bias in model, impacting care for conditions like pneumonia and heart failure. This leads to worse treatment and outcomes.
The scope and severity of such examples reveal that biased algorithms are already having a real discriminatory impact on people’s lives.
Harms Caused by Biased AI Systems
Biased algorithms can amplify social injustice and lead to a wide range of real-world harms:
Civil rights violations
Discriminatory algorithms fundamentally undermine basic rights to fairness, due process and equal treatment under the law. Those already marginalised in society are most at risk.
Loss of economic opportunities
Biased algorithms limit economic opportunities for entire groups, exacerbating financial inequality. Discriminatory hiring algorithms are especially problematic.
Loss of social opportunities
Biases around areas like housing or college admissions restrict social mobility and entrench existing disparities.
Erosion of public trust
Pervasive examples of algorithmic bias is the damage to public trust in AI systems and the tech companies that create them. Lack of faith impedes the adoption of AI.
Flawed organisational decision-making
Organisations that uncritically rely on biased systems will propagate unfairness and make sub-optimal decisions that ignore key inputs.
Because algorithms operate behind the scenes, discriminatory results can be extremely hard to pinpoint and quantify. Impacts are obscured.
When combined with existing societal biases, algorithmic bias can compound discrimination faced by marginalised groups.
Possible Solutions for Mitigating AI Bias
While bias in machine learning is a challenging problem, researchers are exploring multiple technical and organisational approaches to improve fairness:
- Ensuring more diverse and representative training data sets. Actively audit for gaps or skews in data collection and inputs.
- Adopting techniques like data augmentation and generative modelling to create more balanced training data. Synthesise missing groups/scenarios.
- Developing new types of algorithms and models that are provably less prone to biases. Seek mathematical guarantees.
- Using techniques like metamodeling and statistical parity to rigorously assess models for bias and correct errors. Test continuously.
- Introducing new testing scenarios and test data to surface hidden biases. Use adversarial techniques to stress test.
- Making transparency, explainability and accountability core requirements for all AI systems. Publish accuracy metrics segmented by user groups.
- Creating human-in-the-loop review processes for higher-stakes decisions. Don’t fully hand off responsibility to algorithms.
- Enlisting more diverse teams of developers. Improve staff diversity at all levels to reduce groupthink.
- Establishing external auditing and oversight for critical public AI systems like healthcare algorithms. Outside reviewers can help.
- Regulatory action – Governments may need to step in with legal protections against harmful uses of biased algorithms.
The Bottom Line
A multi-pronged strategy combining technical, corporate and regulatory approaches is likely needed. While we need to be realistic that some level of bias is inevitable, active steps can help mitigate harm. With increased public awareness, pressure and regulation, the AI industry is responsible for proactively addressing these challenges. The goal of fairer and more just AI is absolutely worth striving for.