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Algorithms are learning from our behaviour: How must we teach them

Algorithms are learning from our behaviour: How must we teach them

by Daniel Zingaro

Have you ever wondered about why the online suggestions on videos, products, services or special offers you receive fits so perfectly into your preferences and interests? Why your social media feed only shows certain content, but filters out the rest? Or why you get certain results on an internet search on your smartphone, but you can’t get the same results from another device? And why does a map application suggest a certain route over another? Or why you are always matched with cat lovers on dating apps?

Did you just click away and thought that your phone mysteriously understands you? And although you may have wondered about this, you may not have found out why.

How these systems work to suggest specific content or courses of actions is generally invisible.  The input, output and processes of its algorithms are never disclosed to users, nor are they made public. But still such automated systems increasingly inform many aspects of our lives such as the online content we interact with, the people we connect with, the places we travel too, the jobs we apply for, the financial investments we make, and the love interests we pursue. As we experience a new realm of digital possibilities, our vulnerability to the influence of inscrutable algorithms increases.

Some of the decisions taken by algorithms may create seriously unfair outcomes that unjustifiably privilege certain groups over others. Because machine-learning algorithms learn from the data that we feed them with, they inevitably also learn the biases reflected in the data. For example, the algorithm that Amazon employed between 2014 and 2017 to automatize the screening of job applicants reportedly penalised words such as ‘women’ (e.g., the names of women’s colleges) on applicants’ resumes. The recruiting tool learned patterns in the data composed of the previous 10 years of candidates’ resumes and therefore learned that Amazon preferred men to women, as they were hired more often as engineers and developers. This means that women were blatantly discriminated against purely based on their gender with regards to obtaining employment at Amazon.

To avoid a world in which algorithms unconsciously guide us towards unfair or unreasonable choices because they are inherently biased or manipulated, we need to fully understand and appreciate the ways in which we teach these algorithms to function. A growing number of researchers and practitioners already engages in explainable AI that entails that they design processes and methods allowing humans to understand and trust the results of machine learning algorithms. Legally the European Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires and spells out specific levels of fairness and transparency that must be adhered to when using personal data, especially when such data is used to make automated decisions about individuals. This imports the principle of accountability for the impact or consequences that automated decisions have on human lives. In a nutshell, this domain development is called algorithmic transparency.

However, there are many questions, concerns and uncertainties that need in depth investigation. For example: 1) how can the complex statistical functioning of a machine learning algorithm be explained in a comprehensible way; 2) to what extent transparency builds, or hampers, trust; 3) to what extent it is fair to influence people’s choices through automated decision-making; 4) who is liable for unfair decisions; … and many more.

These questions need answers if we wish to teach algorithms well to allow for a co-existence between humans and machine to be productive and ethical.

 

Authors:

Dr Arianna Rossi – Research Associate at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT), University of Luxembourg, LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arianna-rossi-aa321374/ , Twitter: @arionair89

Dr Marietjie Botes – Research Associate at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT), University of Luxembourg, LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-marietjie-botes-71151b55/ , Twitter: @Dr_WM_Botes

The beginning of the LeADS era

On January 1st 2021 LeADS (Legality Attentive Data Scientists) started its journey. A Consortium of 7 prominent European universities and research centres along with 6 important industrial partners and 2 Supervisory Authorities is exploring ways to create a new generation of LEgality Attentive Data Scientists while investigating the interplay between and across many sciences.

LeADS envisages a research and training programme that will blend ground-breaking applied research and pragmatic problem-solving from the involved industries, regulators, and policy makers. The skills produced by LeADS and tested by the ESR will be able to tackle the confusion created by the blurred borders between personal and commercial information and between personality and property rights typical of the big data environment. Both processes constitute a silent revolution—developed by new digital business models, industrial standards, and customs—that is already embedded in soft law instruments (such as stakeholders’ agreements) and emerging in case law and legislation (Regulation EU 2016/679 and the e-privacy directive to begin with), while data scientists are mostly unaware of them. They cut across the emergence of the Digital Transformation, and call for a more comprehensive and innovative regulatory framework. Against this background, LeADS is animated by the idea that in the digital economy data protection holds the keys for both protecting fundamental rights and fostering the kind of competition that will sustain the growth and “completion” of the “Digital Single Market” and the competitive ability of European businesses outside the EU. Under LeADS, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other EU rules will dictate the transnational standard for the global data economy while training researchers able to drive the process and set an example

The data economy or better way the data society we increasingly live is our explorative target under many angles (from the technological to the legal and ethics one). This new generation is needed to better answer to the challenges of the data economy and the unfolding of the digital transformation scoping. Our Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) will come from many experiences and backgrounds (law, computer science, economics, statistics, management, engineering, policy studies, and mathematics,..).

ESRs will find an enthusiastic transnational, interdisciplinary team of teams tackling the relevant issues from their many angles. Their research will be supported by these research teams in setting the theoretical framework and the practical implementation template of a common language.

LeADS research plan, although already envisages 15 specific topics to be interdisciplinary investigated, remain open-ended.

It is natural in the fields we have selected for which we identified crossover concepts in need of a common understanding of concepts useful for future researchers, policy makers, software developers, lawyers and market actors.

LeADS research strives to create, share cross disciplinary languages and integrate the respective background domain knowledge of its participants in one shared idiolect that it wants to share with a wider audience.

It is LeADS understanding that regulatory issues in data science and AI development and deployment are often perceived (and sometimes are) hurdles to innovation, markets and above all research. Our unwritten goal is to contribute to turn regulatory and ethical constraints which are needed in opportunities for better developments.

LADS aims at nurturing a data science capable of maintaining its innovative solutions within the borders of law – by design and by default – and of helping expand the legal frontiers in line with innovation needs, preventing the enactments of legal rules technologically unattainable.

By Giovanni Comandé