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November 19, 2017

[liveblog][ai] A Harm-reduction framework for algorithmic accountability

I’m at one of the weekly Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and MIT Media Lab talks. Alexandra Wood and Micah Altman are talking about “A harm reduction framework for algorithmic accountability over personal information” — a snapshot of their ongoing research at the Privacy Tools Project. The PTP is an interdisciplinary project that investigates tools for sharing info while preserving privacy.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Alexandra says they’ve been developing frameworks for assessing privacy risk when collecting personal data, and have been looking at the controls that can be used to protect individuals. They’ve found that privacy tools address a narrow slice of the problem; other types of misuse of data require other approaches.

She refers to some risk assessment algorithms used by the courts that have turned out to be racially biased, to have unbalanced error rates (falsely flagging black defendants as future criminals at twice the rate as white defendents), and are highly inaccurate. “What’s missing is an analysis of harm”What’s missing is an analysis of harm. “Current approaches to regulating algorithmic classification and decision-making largely elide harm,” she says. “The ethical norms in the law point to the broader responsibilities of the algorithms’ designers.”

Micah says there isn’t a lot of work mapping the loss privacy to other harms. The project is taking an interdisciplinary approach to this. [I don’t trust my blogging here. Don’t get upset with Micah for my ignorance-based reporting!]

Social science treats harm pragmatically. It finds four main dimensions of well-being: wealth, health, life satisfaction and the meaningful choices available to people. Different schools take different approaches to this, some emphasizing physical and psychological health, others life satisfaction, etc.

But to assess harm, you need to look at people’s lives over time. E.g., how does going to prison affect people’s lives? Being sentenced decreases your health, life-satisfaction, choices, and loer income. “The consequences of sentencing are persistent and individually catastrophic.”

He shows a chart from ProPublica based on Broward County data that shows that the risk scores for white defendants skews heavily toward lower scores while the scores for black defendants is more evenly distributed. This by itself doesn’t prove that it’s unfair. You have to look at the causes of the differences in those distributions.

Modern inference theory says something different about harm. A choice is harmful if the causal effect of that outcome is worse, and the causal effect is measured by potential outcomes. “The causal impact of smoking is not simply that you may get cancer, but includes the impact of not smoking”The causal impact of smoking is not simply that you may get cancer, but includes the impact of not smoking, such as possibly gaining weight. You have to look at the counter-factuals

The COMPAS risk assessment tool that has been the subject of much criticism is affected by which training data you use, choice of algorithm, the application of it to the individual, and the use of the score in sentencing. Should you exclude information about race? Or exclude any info that might violate people’s privacy? Or make it open or not? And how to use the outcomes?

Can various protections reduce harm from COMPAS? Racial features were not explicitly included in the COMPAS model. But there are proxies for race. Removing the proxies could lead to less accurate predictions, and make it difficult to study and correct for bias. That is, removing that data (features) doesn’t help that much and might prevent you from applying corrective measures.

Suppose you throw out the risk score. Judges are still biased. “The adverse impact is potentially greater when the decision is not informed by an algorithm’s prediction.” A recent paper by John Kleinberg showed that “algorithms predicting pre-trial assessments were less biased than decisions made by human judges”algorithms predicting pre-trial assessments were less biased than decisions made by human judges. [I hope I got that right. It sounds like a significant finding.]

There’s another step: going from the outcomes to the burdens these outcomes put on people. “An even distribution of outcomes can produce disproportionate burdens.” E.g. juvenile defendants have more to lose — more of their years will be negatively affected by a jail sentence — so having the same false positive and negatives for adults and juveniles would impost a greater burden on the juveniles. When deciding it an algorithmic decision is unjust, you can’t just look at the equality of error rates.

A decision is unjust when it is: 1. Dominated (all groups pay a higher burden for the same social benefit); 2. Unprogressive (higher relative burdens on members of classes who are less well off); 3. Individually catastrophic (wrong decisions are so harmful that it reduces the well being of individuals in members of a known class); 4) Group punishment (an effect on an entire disadvantaged class.)

For every decision, theere are unavoidable constraints: a tradeoff between the individual and the social group; a privacy cost; can’t be equally accurate in all categories; can’t be fair without comparing utility across people; it’s impossible to avoid constraints by adding human judgment because the human is still governed by these constraints.

Micah’s summary for COMPAS: 1. Some protections would be irrelevant (inclusion of sensitive characteristics and and protection of indvidual information). Other protections would be insufficient (no intention to discriminate, open source/open data/FCRA).

Micah ends with a key question about fairness that has been too neglected: “Do black defendants bear a relatively higher cost than whites from bad decisions that prevent the same social harms?”

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November 5, 2017

[liveblog] Stefania Druga on how kids can help teach us about AI

Stefania Druga, a graduate student in the Personal Robots research group at the MIT Media Lab, is leading a discussion focusing on how children can help us to better understand and utilize AI. She’s going to talk about some past and future research projects.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She shows two applications of AI developed for kids The first is Cayla, a robotic doll. “It got hacked three days after it was released in Germany” and was banned there. The second is Aristotle, which was supposed to be an Alexa for kids. A few weeks ago Mattel decided not to release it, after “parents worried about their kids’ privacy signed petitions”parents worried about their kids’ privacy signed petitions.

Stefania got interested in what research was being done in this field. She found a couple of papers. One (Lovato & Piper 2015
) showed that children mirrored how they interact with Siri, e.g., how angry or assertive. Antother (McReynolds et al., 2017 [pdf]) found that how children and parents interact with smart toys revealed how little parents and children know about how much info is being collected by these toys, e.g. Hello Barbie’s privacy concerns. It also looked at how parents and children were being incentivized to share info on social media.

Stefania’s group did a pilot study, having parents and 27 kids interact with various intelligent agents, including Alexa, Julie Chatbot, Tina the T.Rex, and Google Home. Four or five chidlren would interact with the agent at a time, with an adult moderator. Their parents were in the room.

Stefania shows a video about this project. After the kids interacted with the agent, they asked if it was smarter than the child, if it’s a friend, if it has feelings. Children anthropomorphize AIs in playful ways. Most of the older children thought the agents were more intelligent than they were, while the younger children weren’t sure. Two conclusions: Makers of these devices should pay more attention to how children interact with them, and we need more research.

What did the children think? They thought the agents were friendly and truthful. “They thought two Alexa devices were separate individuals.”They thought two Alexa devices were separate individuals. The older children thought about these agents differently than the younger ones do. This latter may be because of how children start thinking about smartness as they progress through school. A question: do they think about artificial intelligence as being the same as human intelligence?

After playing with the agents, they would probe the nature of the device. “They are trying to place the ontology of the device.”

Also, they treated the devices as gender ambiguous.

The media glommed onto this pilot study. E.g., MIT Technology Review: “Growing Up with Alexa.” Or NYTimes: “Co-Parenting with Alexa.” Wired: Understanding Generation Alpha. From these articles, it seems that people are really polarized about the wisdom of introducing children to these devices.

Is this good for kids? “It’s complicated,” Stefania says. The real question is: How can children and parents leverage intelligent agents for learning, or for other good ends?

Her group did another study, this summer, that had 30 pairs of children and parents navigate a robot to solve a maze. They’d see the maze from the perspective of the robot. They also saw a video of a real mouse navigating a maze, and of another robot solving the maze by itself. “Does changing the agent (themselves, mouse, robot) change their idea of intelligence?”Does changing the agent (themselves, mouse, robot) change their idea of intelligence? Kids and parents both did the study. Most of the kids mirrored their parents’ choices. They even mirrored the words the parents used…and the value placed on those words.

What next? Her group wants to know how to use these devices for learning. They build extensions using Scratch, including for an open source project called Poppy. (She shows a very cool video of the robot playing, collaborating, painting, etc.) Kids can program it easily. Ultimately, she hopes that this might help kids see that they have agency, and that while the robot is smart at some things, people are smart at other things.

Q&A

Q: You said you also worked with the elderly. What are the chief differences?

A: Seniors and kids have a lot in common. They were especially interested in the fact that these agents can call their families. (We did this on tablets, and some of the elderly can’t use them because their skin is too dry.)

Q: Did learning that they can program the robots change their perspective on how smart the robots are?

A: The kids who got the bot through the maze did not show a change in their perspective. When they become fluent in customizing it and understanding how it computes, it might. It matters a lot to have the parents involved in flipping that paradigm.

Q: How were the parents involved in your pilot study?

A: It varied widely by parent. It was especially important to have the parents there for the younger kids because the device sometimes wouldn’t understand the question, or what sorts of things the child could ask it about.

Q: Did you look at how the participants reacted to robots that have strong or weak characteristics of humans or animals.

A: We’ve looked at whether it’s an embodied intelligent agent or not, but not at that yet. One of our colleagues is looking at questions of empathy.

Q: [me] Do the adults ask their children to thank Siri or other such agents?

A: No.

Q: [me] That suggests they’re tacitly shaping them to think that these devices are outside of our social norms?

Q: In my household, the “thank you” extinguishes itself: you do it a couple of times, and then you give it up.

A: This indicates that these systems right now are designed in a very transactional way. You have to say the wake up call every single phrase. But these devices will advance rapidly. Right now it’s unnatural conversation. But wth chatbots kids have a more natural conversation, and will say thank you. And kids want to teach it things, e.g, their names or favorite color. When Alexa doesn’t know what the answer is, the natural thing is to tell it, but that doesn’t work.

Q: Do the kids think these are friends?

A: There’s a real question around animism. Is it ok for a device to be designed to create a relationship with, say, a senior person and to convince them to take their pills? My answer is that people tend to anthropomorphize everything. Over time, kids will figure out the limitations of these tools.

Q: Kids don’t have genders for the devices? The speaking ones all have female voices. The doll is clearly a female.

A: Kids were interchanging genders because the devices are in a fluid space in the spectrum of genders. “They’re open to the fact that it’s an entirely new entity.”

Q: When you were talking about kids wanting to teach the devices things, I was thinking maybe that’s because they want the robot to know them. My question: Can you say more about what you observed with kids who had intelligent agents at home as opposed to those who do not?

A: Half already had a device at home. I’m running a workshop in Saudi Arabia with kids there. I’m very curious to see the differences. Also in Europe. We did one in Colombia among kids who had never seen an Alexa before and who wondered where the woman was. They thought there must be a phone inside. They all said good bye at the end.

Q: If the wifi goes down, does the device’s sudden stupidness concern the children? Do they think it died?

A: I haven’t tried that.

[me] Sounds like that would need to go through an IRB.

Q: I think your work is really foundational for people who want to design for kids.

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October 29, 2017

Restoring photos’ dates from Google Photos download

Google Photos lets you download your photos, which is good since they’re you’re own damn photos. But when you do, every photo’s file will be stamped as having been created on the day you downloaded it. This is pretty much a disaster, especially since the photos have names like “IMG_20170619_153745.jpg.”

Ok, so maybe you noticed that the file name Google Photos supplies contains the date the photo was taken. So maybe you want to just munge the file name to make it more readable, as in “2017-06-19.” If you do it that way, you’ll be able to sort chronologically just by sorting alphabetically. But the files are still all going to be dated with the day you did the download, and that’s going to mean they won’t sort chronologically with any photos that don’t follow that exact naming convention.

So, you should adjust the file dates to reflect the day the photos were taken.

It turns out to be easy. JPG’s come with a header of info (called EXIF) that you can’t see but your computer can. There’s lots of metadata about your photo in that header, including the date it was taken. So, all you need to do is extract that date and re-set your file’s date to match it.

Fortunately, the good folks on the Net have done the heavy lifting for us.

Go to http://www.sentex.net/~mwandel/jhead/ and download the right version of jhead for your computer. Put it wherever you keep utilities. On my Mac I put it in /Applications/Utilities/, but it really doesn’t matter.

Open up a terminal. Log in as a superuser:

sudo -i

Enter the password you use to log into your computer and press Enter.

Change to the directory the contains the photos you want to update. You do this with the “cd” command, as in:

cd /Applications/Users/david/Downloads/GooglePhotos/

That’s a Mac-ish path. I’m going to assume you know enough about paths to figure out your own, how to handle spaces in directory names, etc. If not, my dear friend Google can probably help you.

You can confirm that you’ve successfully changed to the right directory by typing this into your terminal:

pwd

That will show you your current directory. Fix it if it’s wrong because the next command will change the file dates of jpgs in whatever directory you’re currently in.

Now for the brutal finishing move:

/Applications/Utilities/jpg-batch-file-jhead/jhead -ft *.jpg

Everything before the final forward slash is the path to wherever you put the jhead file. After that final slash the command is telling the terminal to run the jhead program, with a particular set of options (-ft) and to apply it to all the files in that directory that end with the extension “.jpg.”

That’s it.

If you want to run the program not just on the directory that you’re in but in all of its subdirectories, this post at StackExchange tells you how: https://photo.stackexchange.com/questions/27245/is-there-a-free-program-to-batch-change-photo-files-date-to-match-exif

Many thanks to Matthias Wandel for jhead and his other contributions to making life with bits better for us all.

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October 28, 2017

Making medical devices interoperable

The screen next to a patient’s hospital bed that displays the heart rate, oxygen level, and other moving charts is the definition of a dumb display. How dumb is it, you ask? If the clip on a patient’s finger falls off, the display thinks the patient is no longer breathing and will sound an alarm…even though it’s displaying outputs from other sensors that show that, no, the patient isn’t about to die.

The problem, as explained by David Arney at an open house for MD PnP, is that medical devices do not share their data in open ways. That is, they don’t interoperate. MD PnP wants to fix that.

The small group was founded in 2004 as part of MIT’s CIMIT (Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation and Technology). Funded by grants, including from the NIH and CRICO Insurance, it currently has 6-8 people working on ways to improve health care by getting machines talking with one another.

The one aspect of hospital devices that manufacturers have generally agreed on is that they connect via serial ports. The FDA encourages this, at least in part because serial ports are electrically safe. So, David pointed to a small connector box with serial ports in and out and a small computer in between. The computer converts the incoming information into an open industry standard (ISO 11073). And now the devices can play together. (The “PnP” in the group’s name stands for “plug ‘n’ play,” as we used to say in the personal computing world.)

David then demonstrated what can be done once the data from multiple devices interoperate.

  • You can put some logic behind the multiple signals so that a patient’s actual condition can be assessed far more accurately: no more sirens when an oxygen sensor falls off a finger.

  • You can create displays that are more informative and easier to read — and easier to spot anomalies on — than the standard bedside monitor.

  • You can transform data into other standards, such as the HL7 format for entry into electronic medical records.

  • If there is more than one sensor monitoring a factor, you can do automatic validation of signals.

  • You can record and perhaps share alarm histories.

  • You can create what is functionally an API for the data your medical center is generating: a database that makes the information available to programs that need it via publish and subscribe.

  • You can aggregate tons of data (while following privacy protocols, of course) and use machine learning to look for unexpected correlations.

MD PnP makes its stuff available under an open BSD license and publishes its projects on GitHub. This means, for example, that while PnP has created interfaces for 20-25 protocols and data standards used by device makers, you could program its connector to support another device if you need to.

Presumably not all the device manufacturers are thrilled about this. The big ones like to sell entire suites of devices to hospitals on the grounds that all those devices interoperate amongst themselves — what I like to call intraoperating. But beyond corporate greed, it’s hard to find a down side to enabling more market choice and more data integration.

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October 27, 2017

[liveblog] Nathan Matias on The Social impact of real-time algorithm decisions

J. Nathan Matias is giving a talk at the weekly AI session held by MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. The title is: Testing the social impact of real-time algorithm decisions. (SPOILER: Nate is awesome.) Nathan will be introducing CivilServant.io to us, a service for researching the effects of tech and how it can be better directed to toward the social outcomes we (the civil society “we”) desire. (That’s my paraphrase.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

In 2008, the French government approved a law against Web sites that encourage anorexia and bulimia. In 2012, Instagram responded to pressure to limit hashtags that “actively promote self-harm.” Instagram had 40M users, almost as many as France’s 55M active Net users. Researchers at Georgia Tech several years later found that some self-harm sites on Instagram had higher engagement after Instagram’s actions. “ If your algorithm reliably detects people who are at risk of committing suicide, what next? ” If your algorithm reliably detects people who are at risk of committing suicide, what next? If the intervention isn helpful, your algorithm is doing harm.

Nathan shows a two-axis grid for evaluating algorithms: fair-unfair and benefits-harms. Accuracy should be considered to be on the same axis as fairness because it can be measured mathematically. But you can’t test the social impact without putting it into the field. “I’m trying to draw attention to the vertical axis [harm-benefit].”

We often have in mind a particular pipeline: training > model > prediction > people . Sometimes there are rapid feedback loops where the decisions made by people feed back into the model. A judicial system’s prediction risk scores may have no such loop. But the AI that manages a news feed is probably getting the readers’ response as data that tunes the model.

We have organizations that check the quality of items we deal with: UL for electrical products, etc. But we don’t have that sort of consumer protection for social tech. The results are moral panics, bad policies, etc. This is the gap Nate is trying to fill with CivilServant.io, a project supported by the Media Lab and GlobalVoices.

Here’s an example of one of CivilServant’s projects:

Managing fake news is essential for democracy. The social sciences have been dealing with this for quite a while by doing research on individual perception and beliefs, on how social context and culture influence beliefs … and now on algorithms that make autonomous decisions that affect us as citizens e.g., newsfeeds. Newsfeeds work this way: someone posts a link. People react to it, e.g. upvote, discuss, etc. The feed service watches that behavior and uses it to promote or demote the item. And then it feeds back in.

We’ve seen lots of examples of pernicious outcomes of this. E.g., at Reddit an early upvote can have dramatic impact on its ratings over time.

What can we do to govern online misinfo? We could surveill and censor. We could encourage counter-speech. We can imagine some type of algorithmic governance. We can use behavioral nudges, e.g. Facebook tagging articles as “disputed.” But all of these assume that these interventions change behaviors and beliefs. Those assumptions are not always tested.

Nate was approached by /r/worldnews at Reddit, a subreddit with14M subscribers and 70 moderators. At Reddit, moderating can be a very time consuming effort. (Nate spoke to a Reddit mod who had stopped volunteering at a children’s hospital in order to be a mod because she thought she could do more good that way.) This subreddit’s mods wanted to know if they could question the legitimacy of an item without causing it to surge on the platform. Fact-checking a post could nudge Reddit’s AI to boost its presence because of the increased activity.

So, they did an experiment asking people to fact check an article, or fact check and downvote if you can’t verify it. They monitored the ranking of the articles by Reddit for 3 months. [Nate now gives some math. Sorry I can’t capture (or understand) it.] The result: to his surprise, “encouraging fact checking reduced the average rank position of an article”encouraging fact checking reduced the average rank position of an article. Encouraging fact checking and down-voting reduced the spread of inaccurate news by Reddit’s algorithms. [I’m not confident I’m getting that right

Why did encouraging fact checking reduce rankings, but fact checking and voting did not? The mods think this might be because it gave users a constructive way to handle articles from reviled sources, reducing the number of negative comments about them. [I hope I’m getting this right.] Also, “reactance” may have nudged people to upvote just to spite the instructions. Also, users may have mobilized friends to vote on the artciles. Also, encouraging two tasks (fact check and then vote) rather than one may have influenced he timing of the algorithm, making the down-votes less impactful.

This is what Nate calls an “AI-Nudge”: a “second-order effect of influencing human behavior on the behavior of an algorithmic system.” It means you have to think about how humans interact with AI.

Often when people are working on AI, they’re starting from computer science and math. The question is: how can we use social science methods to research the effect of AI? Paluck and Cialdini see a cycle of Pilot/Lab experiments > qualitative methods > field experiences > theory / policy / design. In the Reddit example, Nathan spent considerable time with the community to understand their issues and how they interact with the AI.

Another example of a study: identifying and reducing side-effects of automated copyright law enforcement on Twitter. When people post something to Twitter, bots monitor it to see if violates copyright, resulting in a DMCA takedown notice being issued. Twitter then takes it down. The Lumen Project from BKC archives these notices. The CivilService project observes those notices in real time to study the effects. E.g., “a user’s tweets per day tends to drop after they receive a takedown notice … for a 42-day period”a user’s tweets per day tends to drop after they receive a takedown notice, and then continues dropping throughout the 42-day period they researched. Why this long-term decrease in posting? Maybe fear and risk. Maybe awareness of surveillance.

So, how can these chilling effects be reduced? The CivilService project automatically sends users info about their rights and about surveillance. The results of this intervention are not in yet. The project hopes to find ways to lessen the public’s needless withdrawal from social media. The research can feed empirical legal studies. Policymakers might find it useful. Civil rights orgs as well. And the platforms themselves.

In the course of the Q&As, Nathan mentions that he’s working on ways to explain social science research that non-experts can understand. CivilService’s work is with user communities and it’s developed a set of ways for communicating openly with the users.

Q: You’re trying to make AI more fair…

A: I’m doing consumer protection, so as experts like you work on making AI more fair, we can see the social effects of interventions. But there are feedback loops among them.

Q: What would you do with a community that doesn’t want to change?

A: We work with communities that want our help. In the 1970s, Campbell wrote an essay: “The Experimenting Society.” He asked if by doing behavioral research we’re becoming an authoritarian society because we’re putting power in the hands of the people who can afford to do the research. He proposed enabling communities to do their own studies and research. He proposed putting data scientists into towns across the US, pool their research, and challenge their findings. But this was before the PC. Now it’s far more feasible.

Q: What sort of pushback have you gotten from communities?

A: Some decide not to work with us. In others, there’s contention about the shape of the project. Platforms have changed how they view this work. Three years ago, the platforms felt under siege and wounded. That’s why I decided to create an independent organization. The platforms have a strong incentive to protect their reputations.

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October 25, 2017

[liveblog] John Palfrey’s new book (and thoughts on rules vs. models)

John Palfrey is doing a launch event at the Berkman Klein Center for his new book, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education. John is the Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover, and for many years was the executive director of the Berkman Klein Center and the head of the Harvard Law School Library. He’s also the chairman of the board of the Knight Foundation. This event is being put on by the BKC, the Law Library, and Andover. His new book is available on paper, or online as an open access book. (Of course it is. It’s John Palfrey, people!)

[Disclosure: Typical conversations about JP, when he’s not present, attempt — and fail — to articulate his multi-facted awesomeness. I’ll fail at this also, so I’ll just note that JP is directly responsible for my affiliation with the BKC and and for my co-directorship of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab…and those are just the most visible ways in which he has enabled me to flourish as best I can. ]

Also, at the end of this post I have some reflections on rules vs. models, and the implicit vs. explicit.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

John begins by framing the book as an attempt to find a balance between diversity and free expression. Too often we have pitted the two against each other, especially in the past few years, he says: the left argues for diversity and the right argues for free expression. It’s important to have both, although he acknowledges that there are extremely hard cases where there is no reconciliation; in those cases we need rules and boundaries. But we are much better off when we can find common ground.

“This may sound old-fashioned in the liberal way. And that’s true,” he says. But we’re having this debate in part because young people have been advancing ideas that we should be listening to. We need to be taking a hard look.

Our institutions should be deeply devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our institutions haven’t been as supportive of these as they should be, although they’re getting better at it, e.g. getting better at acknowledging the effects of institutional racism.

The diversity argument pushes us toward the question of “safe spaces.” Safe spaces are crucial in the same way that every human needs a place where everyone around them supports them and loves them, and where you can say dumb things. We all need zones of comfort, with rules implicit or explicit. It might be a room, a group, a virtual space… E.g., survivors of sexual assault need places where they know there are rules and they can express themselves without feeling at risk.

But, John adds, there should also be spaces where people are uncomfortable, where their beliefs are challenged.

Spaces of both sorts are experienced differently by different people. Privileged people like John experience spaces as safe that others experience as uncomfortable.

The examples in his book include: trigger warnings, safe spaces, the debates over campus symbols, the disinvitation of speakers, etc. These are very hard to navigate and call out for a series of rules or principles. Different schools might approach these differently. E.g.,students from the Gann Academy are here tonight, a local Jewish high school. They well might experience a space differently than students at Andover. Different schools well might need different rules.

Now John turns it over to students for comments. (This is very typical JP: A modest but brilliant intervention and then a generous deferral to the room. I had the privilege of co-teaching a course with him once, and I can attest that he is a brilliant, inspiring teacher. Sorry, but to be such a JP fanboy, but I am at least an evidence-based fanboy.) [I have not captured these student responses adequately, in some cases simply because I had trouble hearing them. They were remarkable, however. And I could not get their names with enough confidence to attempt to reproduce them here. Sorry!]

Student Responses

Student: I graduated from Andover and now I’m at Harvard. I was struck by the book’s idea that we need to get over the dichotomy between diversity and free expression. I want to address Chapter 5, about hate speech. It says each institution ought to assess its own values to come up with its principles about speech and diversity, and those principles ought to be communicated clearly and enforced consistently. But, I believe, we should in fact be debating what the baseline should be for all institutions. We don’t all have full options about what school we’re going to go to, so there ought to be a baseline we all can rely on.

JP: Great critique. Moral relativism is not a good idea. But I don’t think one size fits all. In the hardest cases, there might be sharpest limits. But I do agree there ought to be some sort of baseline around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’d like to see that be a higher baseline, and we’ve worked on this at Andover. State universities are different. E.g., if a neo-Nazi group wants to demonstrate on a state school campus and they follow the rules laid out in the Skokie case, etc., they should be allowed to demonstrate. If they came to Andover, we’d say no. As a baseline, we might want to change the regulations so that the First Amendment doesn’t apply if the experience is detrimental to the education of the students; that would be a very hard line to draw. Even if we did, we still might want to allow local variations.

Student: Brave spaces are often build from safe spaces. E.g., at Andover we used Facebook to build a safe space for women to talk, in the face of academic competitions where misogyny was too common. This led to creating brave places where open, frank discussion across differences was welcomed.

JP: Yes, giving students a sense of safety so they can be brave is an important point. And, yes, brave spaces do often grow from safe spaces.

Andover student: I was struck by why diversity is important: the cross-pollination of ideas. But from my experience, a lot of that hasn’t occurred because we’re stuck in our own groups. There’s also typically a divide between the students and the faculty. Student activitsts are treated as if they’re just going through a phase. How do we bridge that gap?

JP: How do we encourage more cross-pollination? It’s a really hard problem for educators. I’ve been struck by the difference between teaching at Harvard Law and Andover in terms of the comfort with disagreeing across political divides; it was far more comfortable at the Law School. I’ve told students if you present a paper that disagrees with my point of view and argues for it beautifully, you’ll do better than parroting ideas back to me. Second, we have to stop using demeaning language to talk about student activists. BTW, there is an interesting dynamic, as teachers today may well have been activists when they were young and think of themselves as the reformers.

Student: [hard to hear] At Andover, our classes were seminar-based, which is a luxury not all students have. Also: Wouldn’t encouraging a broader spread of ideas create schisms? How would you create a school identity?

JP: This echoes the first student speaker’s point about establishing a baseline. Not all schools can have 12 students with two teachers in a seminar, as at Andover. We need to find a dialectic. As for schisms: we have to communicate values. Institutions are challenged these days but there is a huge place for them as places that convey values. There needs to be some top down communication of those values. Students can challenge those values, and they should. This gets at the heart of the problem: Do we tolerate the intolerant?

Student: I’m a graduate of Andover and currently at Harvard. My generation has grown up with the Internet. What happens when what is supposed to be a safe space becomes a brave space for some but not all? E.g., a dorm where people speak freely thinking it’s a safe space. What happens when the default values overrides what someone else views as comfortable? What is the power of an institution to develop, monitor, and mold what people actually feel? When communities engage in groupthink, how can an institution construct space safes?

JP: I don’t have an easy answer to this. We do need to remember that these spaces are experienced differently by different people, and the rules ought to reflect this. Some of my best learning came from late night bull sessions. It’s the duty of the institution to do what it can to enable that sort of space. But we also have to recognize that people who have been marginalized react differently. The rule sets need to reflect that fact.

Student: Andover has many different forum spaces available, from hallways to rooms. We get to decide to choose when and where these conversations will occur. For a more traditional public high school where you only have 30-person classroom as a forum, how do we have the difficult conversations that students at Andover choose to have in more intimate settings?

JP: The size and rule-set of the group matters enormously. Even in a traditional HS you can still break a class into groups. The answer is: How do you hack the space?

Student: I’m a freshman at Harvard. Before the era of safe spaces, we’d call them friends: people we can talk with and have no fear that our private words will be made public, and where we will not be judged. Safe spaces may exclude people, e.g., a safe space open only to women.

JP Andover has a group for women of color. That excludes people, and for various reasons we think that’s entirely appropriate an useful.

Q&A

Q [Terry Fisher]: You refer frequently to rule sets. If we wanted to have a discussion in a forum like this, you could announce a set of rules. Or the organizer could announce values, such as: we value respect, or we want people to take the best version of what others say. Or, you could not say anything and model it in your behavior. When you and I went to school, there were no rules in classrooms. It was all done by modeling. But this also meant that gender roles were modeled. My experience of you as a wonderful teacher, JP, is that you model values so well. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of your students talk with the precision and respectfulness that you model. I am worried about relying on rule sets, and doubt their efficacy for the long term. Rather, the best hope is people modeling and conveying better values, as in the old method.

JP: Students, Terry Fischer was my teacher. May answer will be incredibly tentative: It is essential for an institution to convey its values. We do this at Andover. Our values tell us, for example, that we don’t want gender-based balance and are aware that we are in a misogynist culture, and thus need reasonable rules. But, yes, modeling is the most powerful.

Q [Dorothy Zinberg]: I’ve been at Harvard for about 70 yrs and I have seen the importance of an individual in changing an institution. For example, McGeorge Bundy thought he should bring 12 faculty to Harvard from non-traditional backgrounds, including Erik Erikson who did not have a college degree. He had been a disciple of Freud’s. He taught a course at Harvard called “The Lifecycle.” Every Harvard senior was reading The Catcher in the Rye. Erikson was giving brilliant lectures, but I told him it was from his point of view as a man, and had nothing to do with the young women. So, he told me, a grad student, to write the lectures. No traditional professor would have done that. Also: for forming groups, there’s nothing like closing the door. People need to be able to let go and try a lot of ideas.

Q: I am from the Sudan. How do you create a safe space in environments that are exclusive. [I may have gotten that wrong. Sorry.] How do you acknowledge the native American tribes whose land this institution is built on, or the slaves who did the building?

JP: We all have that obligation. [JP gives some examples of the Law School recently acknowledging the slave labor, and the money from slave holders, that helped build the school.]

Q: You used a kitchen as an example of a safe space. Great example. But kitchens are not established or protected by any authority. It’s a new idea that institutions ought to set these up. Do you think there should be safe spaces that are privately set up as well as by institutions? Should some be permitted to exclude people or not?

(JP asks a student to respond): Institutional support can be very helpful when you have a diversity of students. Can institutional safe spaces supplement private ones? I’m not sure. And I do think exclusive groups have a place. As a consensus forms, it’s important to allow the marginalized voices to connect.

Q [ head of Gann]: I’m a grad of Phillips Academy. As head of a religious school, we’re struggling with all these questions. Navigating these spaces isn’t just a political or intellectual activity. It is a work of the heart. If the institution thinks of this only as a rational activity and doesn’t tend to the hearts of our students, and is not explicit about the habits of heart we need to navigate these sensitive waters, only those with natural emotional skills will be able to flourish. We need to develop leaders who can turn hard conversations into generative ones. What would it look like to take on the work of developing social and emotional development?

JP: Ive been to Gann and am confident that’s what you’re doing. And you can see evidence of Andover’s work on it in the students who spoke tonight. Someone asked me if a student became a Nazi, would you expel him? Yes, if it were apparent in his actions, but probably not for his thoughts. Ideally, our students won’t come to have those views because of the social and emotional skills they’re learning. But people in our culture do have those views. Your question brings it back to the project of education and of democracy.

[This session was so JP!]

 


 

A couple of reactions to this discussion without having yet read the book.

First, about Prof. Fisher’s comment: I think we are all likely to agree that modeling the behavior we want is the most powerful educational tool. JP and Prof. Fisher, are both superb, well, models of this.

But, as Prof. Fisher noted in his question, the dominant model of discourse for our generation silently (and sometimes explicitly) favored males, white middle class values, etc. Explicit rules weren’t as necessary because we had internalized them and had stacked the deck against those who were marginalized by them. Now that diversity has thankfully become an explicit goal, and now that the Internet has thrown us into conversations across differences, we almost always need to make those rules explicit; a conversation among people from across divides of culture, economics, power, etc. that does not explicitly acknowledge the different norms under which the participants operate is almost certainly going to either fragment or end in misunderstanding.

(Clay Shirky and I had a collegial difference of opinion about this about fifteen years ago. Clay argued for online social groups having explicit constitutions. I argued
for the importance of the “unspoken” in groups, and the damage that making norms explicit can cause.)

Second, about the need for setting a baseline: I’m curious to see what JP’s book says about this, because the evidence is that we as a culture cannot agree about what the baseline is: vociferous and often nasty arguments about this have been going on for decades. For example, what’s the baseline for inviting (or disinviting) people with highly noxious views to a private college campus? I don’t see a practical way forward for establishing a baseline answer. We can’t even get Texas schools to stop teaching Creationism.

So, having said that modeling is not enough, and having despaired at establishing a baseline, I think I am left being unhelpfully dialectical:

1. Modeling is essential but not enough.

2. We ought to be appropriately explicit about rules in order to create places where people feel safe enough to be frank and honest…

3. …But we are not going to be able to agree on a meaningful baseline for the U.S., much less internationally — “meaningful” meaning that it is specific enough that it can be applied to difficult cases.

4. But modeling may be the only way we can get to enough agreement that we can set a baseline. We can’t do it by rules because we don’t have enough unspoken agreement about what those rules should be. We can only get to that agreement by seeing our leading voices in every field engage across differences in respectful and emotionally truthful ways. So at the largest level, I find I do agree with Prof. Fisher: we need models.

5. But if our national models are to reflect the values we want as a baseline, we need to be thoughtful, reflective, and explicit about which leading voices we want to elevate as models. We tend to do this not by looking for rules but by looking for Prof. Fisher’s second alternative: values. For example, we say positively that we love John McCain’s being a “maverick” or Kamala Harris’ careful noting of the evidence for her claims, and we disdain Trump’s name-calling. Rules derive from values such as those. Values come before rules.

I just wish I had more hope about the direction we’re going in…although I do see hopeful signs in some of the model voices who are emerging, and most of all, in the younger generation’s embrace of difference.

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October 19, 2017

[liveblog] AI and Education session

Jenn Halen, Sandra Cortesi, Alexa Hasse, and Andres Lombana Bermudez of the Berkman Klein Youth and Media team are leading about a discussion about AI and Education at MIT Media Lab as part of the Ethics and Governance of AI program jointly at the Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the MIT Media Lab.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Sandra gives an introduction the BKC Youth and Media project. She points out that their projects are co-designed with the groups that they are researching. From the AI folks they’d love ideas and better understanding of AI, for they are just starting to consider the importance of AI to education and youth. They are creating a Digital Media Literacy Platform (which Sandra says they hope to rename).

They show an intro to AI designed to be useful for a teacher introducing the topic to students. It defines, at a high level, AI, machine learning, and neural networks. They also show “learning experiences” (= “XP”) that Berkman Klein summer interns came up with, including AI and well-being, AI and news, autonomous vehicles, and AI and art. They are committed to working on how to educate youth about AI not only in terms of particular areas, but also privacy, safety, etc., always with an eye towards inclusiveness.

They open it up for discussion by posing some questions. 1. How to promote inclusion? How to open it up to the most diverse learning communities? 2. Did we spot any errors in their materials? 3. How to reduce the complexity of this topic? 4. Should some of the examples become their own independent XPs? 5. How to increase engagement? How to make it exciting to people who don’t come into it already interested in the topic?

[And then it got too conversational for me to blog…]

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October 16, 2017

How to screw up a succah. In a good way.

I know you’re all wondering how I was able to build such a magnificent succah, and how I managed to combine inexpensiveness with convenience. But most of all, you’re wondering what the hell is a succah?


A succah is essentially a temporary Jew shack that you eat in during the holiday of Succos (AKA Sukkot). It has to meet certain requirements that make it somewhat sturdier than a pillow fort: It has to be temporary, covered incompletely on top, closed on at least three sides, etc. If you’re an observant Jew, as elements of my family are, you eat all your meals out there during the 8-day holiday. Some Jews even sleep in them. Far more commonly, the custom is to have guests as often as possible so that meals are extended and highly social. In some Jewish communities, succah-hopping is a thing. A good thing.


For the past 20+ yrs, I’ve been constructing it out of the same set of PVC pipes. I have a rubber mallet, which is comical enough that I should probably have bought it from Acme Hardware, which I use to bang poles into T-fittings. (For the middle uprights, they’re T-s with a third sleeve in the third dimension, which sounds way more complex than it actually is.)


This is fine except for my constant anxiety about wind overcoming the friction that holds the slippery tubes into their slippery connectors. So, every year after I’ve pounded the poles together — and, if you try to visualize the process you’ll see that pounding a tube into one sleeve unpounds it from the sleeve at the other end — I’ve drilled a hole through the sleeve and tube and inserted a weenie nail, just to add some charming shrapnel to the explosion when the wind suddenly tosses it apart like a child knocking down a house made of drinking straws.


So, I did some research and this year built a succah using a remarkable breakthrough in applied physics: threaded connectors. Here’s how.


Our succah is 10′ x 10′. Each side wall consists of two corner uprights, one upright in the middle, and four horizontal poles. The uprights have have fittings with a threaded nut. The horizontals have fittings that screw into the nuts. The fittings are glued on to the poles using PVC glue. You simply screw all the pieces together.


It’s a little more complicated than that, though, because everything is. The threaded fittings are sleeves. But because they’re all designed to connect to lengths of pipe the way you might want to connect one garden hose to another, you can’t use them to connect pipes perpendicularly. But every joint in this construction connects a horizontal to an upright, which means you need 90-degree turns.


So you get yourself some plain old fittings, like the ones I used in the prior version. You attach them to the uprights. But those fittings are sleeves designed to join two pipes. The threaded fittings are also sleeves. How do you join a sleeve to a sleeve? With a pipe! So, for each join, cut a 2″ piece of pipe. Glue one end into the sleeve on the upright. Glue the other end to the threaded end of the threaded joins. Press them in so that they’re flush. Below is an example where the connector was a little too long, so the joins are not flush, purely for illustrative purposes I assure you:


Now assemble the pipes. Our uprights are 7′. The horizontals are 47″ each, which, with the additional lengths imposed by the fittings, worked out to about 10′. But if you need exactness, you should cut them to fit. Just remember to label them so they’ll go together next year. Also, wear eye protection: the pipes cut easily with a circular saw, but it creates a lot of flying plastic jaggies.


Here’s the invoice for the fittings:

invoice


You might want to get ourself a spare or two. I’m still amazed that I got away without needing one.


Note that the outer rings tighten counter-clockwise. You have to get the pieces lined up pretty well to be able to screw them together. I suggest that you assemble it from the ground up so that you won’t have to expand magic suspending pieces in mid-air.


The succah worked out well. It seemed pretty robust for a plastic structure made out of pipes not intended for that purpose. It disassembled quite easily. My only concern is how many years we’ll get out of the threaded pieces; they seem rugged but so did I once. (Actually, I didn’t.)

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October 10, 2017

[liveblog][bkc] Algorithmic fairness

I’m at a special Berkman Klein Center Tuesday lunch, a panel on “Programming the Future of AI: Ethics, Governance, and Justice” with Cynthia Dwork, Christopher L. Griffin, Margo I. Seltzer, and Jonathan L. Zittrain, in a discussion moderated by Chris Bavitz.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

They begin with brief intros of their interests:

Chris Griffin: One of the big questions for use of algorithms in the justice system is what: is the alternative? Human decision making has its own issues.

Margo Seltzer: She’s been working on transparent models. She would always prefer to be able to get an index card’s worth of explanation of how a machine learning system has come up with its output.

Cynthia Dwork: What is our definition of fairness, and how might we evaluate the fairness of our machine systems? She says she’s not that big a fan of insisting on explanations.

Jonathan Zittrain: What elements of this ought to be contracted out? Can we avoid the voting machine problem of relying on a vendor we don’t necessarily trust? Also, it may be that expalantions don’t help us that much. Also, we have to be very wary of biases built into the data. Finally, AI might be able to shed light on interventions before problems arise, e.g., city designs that might lower crime rates.

Chris Bavitz: Margo, say more about transparency…

Seltzer: Systems ought to be designed so that if you ask why it came up with that conclusion, it can tell you in a way that you can understand. Not just a data dump.

Bavitz: The legal system generally expects that, but is that hard to do?

Seltzer: It seems that in some cases you can achieve higher accuracy with models that are not explicable. But not always.

Dwork: Yes.

Zittrain: People like Cynthia Rudin have been re-applying techniques from the 1980s but are explainable. But I’ve been thinking about David Weinberger’s recent work [yes, me] that reality may depend on factors that are deeply complex and that don’t reduce down to understandable equations.

Dwork: Yes. But back to Margo. Rule lists have antecedents and probabilities. E.g., you’re trying to classify mushrooms as poisonous or not. There are features you notice: shape of the head, odor, texture, etc. You can generate rules lists that are fairly simple: if the stalk is like this and the smell is like, then it’s likely poisonous. But you can also have “if/else” conditions. The conclusions can be based on very complex dependencies among these factors. So, the question of why something was classified some way can be much more complicated than meets the eye.

Seltzer: I agree. Let’s say you were turned down for the loan. You might not be able to understand the complex of factors, but you might be able to find a factor you can address.

Dwork: Yes, but the question “Is there a cheap and easy path that would lead to a different outcome?” is a very different quesiton than “Why I was classified some particular way?””

Griffin: There’s a multi-level approach to assessing transparency. We can’t expect the public to understand the research by which a model is generated. But how is that translated into scoring mechanisms? What inputs are we using? If you’re assessing risk from 1 to 6, does the decision-maker understand the difference between, say, a 2 and 3?

Zittrain: The data going in often is very reductive. You do an interview with a prisoner who doesn’t really answer so you take a stab at it … but the stabbiness of that data is not itself input. [No, Zittrain did not say “stabbiness”].

Griffin: The data quality issue is widespread. In part this is because the data sets are discrete. It would be useful to abstract ID’s so the data can be aggregated.

Zittrain: Imagine you can design mushrooms. You could design a poisonous one with the slightest variation from edible ones to game the system. A real life example: the tax system. I think I’d rather trust machine learning than a human model that can be more easily gamed.

Bavitz: An interviewer who doesn’t understand the impact of the questions she’s asking might be a feature, not a bug, if you want to get human bias out of the model…

Seltzer: The suspicion around machine algorithms stems from a misplaced belief that humans are fair and unbiased. The combination of a human and a machine, if the human can understand the machine’s model, might result in less biased decisions than either on their own.

Bavitz: One argument for machine learning tools is consistency.

Griffin: The ethos of our system would be lost. We rely on a judicial official to use her or his wisdom, experience, and discretion to make decisions. “Bias could be termed as the inability to perceive with sufficient clarity.” [I missed some of this. Sorry.]

Bavitz: If the data is biased, can the systems be trained out of the bias?

Dwork: Generally, garbage in, garbage out. There are efforts now, but they’re problematic. Maybe you can combine unbiased data with historical data, and use that to learn models that are less biased.

Griffin: We’re looking for continuity in results. With the prisoner system, the judge gets a list of the factors lined up with the prisoner’s history. If the judge wants to look at that background and discard some of the risk factors because they’re so biased, s/he can ignore the machine’s recommendation. There may be some anchoring bias, but I’d argue that that’s a good thing.

Bavitz: How about the private, commercial actors who are providing this software? What if these companies don’t want to make their results interpretable so as not to give away their special sauce?

Dwork: When Facebook is questioned, I like to appeal to the miracle of modern cryptography that lets us prove that secrets have particular properties without decrypting them. This can be applied to algorithms so you can show that one has a particular property without revealing that algorithm itself. There’s a lot of technology out there that can be used to preserve the secrecy of the algorithm, if that were the only problem.

Zittrain: It’d be great to be able to audit a tech while keeping the algorithm secret, but why does the company want to keep it secret? Especially if the results of the model are fed back in, increasing lock-in. I can’t see why we’d want to farm this out to commercial entities. But that hasn’t been on the radar because entrepreneurial companies are arising to do this for municipalities, etc.

Seltzer: First, the secrecy of the model is totally independent from the business model. Second, I’m fine with companies building these models, but it’s concerning if they’re keeping the model secret. Would you take a pill if you had no idea how it worked?

Zittrain: We do that all the time.

Dwork: That’s an example of relying on testing, not transparency.

Griffin: Let’s say we can’t get the companies to reveal the algorithms or the research. The public doesn’t want to know (unless there’s litigation over a particular case) the reasoning behind the decision, but whether it works.

Zittrain: Assume re-arrest rates are influenced by factors that shouldn’t count. The algorithm would reflect that. What can we do about that?

Griffin: The evidence is overwhelming about the disparity in stops by race and ethnicity. The officers are using the wrong proxies for making these decisions. If you had these tools throughout the lifespan of such a case, you might be able to change this. But these are difficult issues.

Seltzer: Every piece of software has bugs. The thought of sw being used in way where I don’t know what it thinks it’s doing or what it’s actually doing gives me a lot of pause.

Q&A

Q: The government keeps rehiring the same contractors who fail at their projects. The US Digital Service insists that contractors develop their sw in public. They fight this. Second, many engineering shops don’t think about the bias in the data. How do we infuse that into companies?

Dwork: I’m teaching it in a new course this semester…

Zittrain: The syllabus is secret. [laughter]

Seltzer: We inject issues of ethics into our every CS course. You have to consider the ethics while you’re designing and building the software. It’s like considering performance and scalability.

Bavitz: At the Ethics and Governance of AI project at the Berkman Klein Center, we’ve been talking about the point of procurement: what do the procurers need to be asking?

Q: The panel has talked about justice, augmenting human decision-making, etc. That makes it sound like we have an idea of some better decision-making process. What is it? How will we know if we’ve achieved it? How will models know if they’re getting it right, especially over time as systems get older?

Dwork: Huge question. Exactly the right question. If we knew who ought to be treated similarly to whom for any particular classification class, everything would become much easier. A lot of AI’s work will be discovering this metric of who is similar to whom, and how similar. It’s going to be an imperfect but improving situation. We’ll be doing the best guess, but as we do more and more research, our idea of what is the best guess will improve.

Zittrain: Cynthia, your work may not always let us see what’s fair, but it does help us see what is unfair. [This is an important point. We may not be able to explain what fairness is exactly, but we can still identify unfairness.] We can’t ask machine learning pattern recognition to come up with a theory of justice. We have to rely on judges, legislators, etc. to do that. But if we ease the work of judges by only presenting the borderline cases, do we run the risk of ossifying the training set on which the judgments by real judges were made? Will the judges become de-skilled? Do you keep some running continuously in artesinal courtrooms…? [laughter]

Griffin: I don’t think that any of these risk assessments can solve any of these optimization problems. That takes a conversation in the public sphere. A jurisdiction has to decide what its tolerance for risk is, what it’s tolerance is for the cost of incarceration, etc. The tool itself won’t get you to that optimized outcome. It will be the interaction of the tool and the decision-makers. That’s what gets optimized over time. (There is some baseline uniformity across jurisdictions.)
Q: Humans are biased. Assume a normal distribution across degrees of bias. AI can help us remove the outliers, but it may rely on biased data.

Dwork: I believe this is the bias problem we discussed.

Q: Wouldn’t be better to train it on artificial data?

Seltzer: Where does that data come from? How do we generate realistic but unbiased data?

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September 26, 2017

[liveblog][pair] Blaise Agüera y Arcas on the source of bias

At the PAIR Symposium, Google’s Blaise Agüera y Arcas is providing some intellectual and historical perspective on AI issues.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

[Note: This is a talk tough to live-blog because it is carefully structured intellectually. My apologies.]

He says neural networks have been part of the computing environment from the beginning. E.g., he thinks that the loop at the end of the logic gate symbol in fact comes from a 1943 symbolization of biological neural networks. There are indications of neural networks in Turing’s early papers. So these ideas go way back. Blaise thinks that the majority of computing processes in a few years will be running on processors designed for running neural networks.

ML has raised anxiety reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s concern — he cites The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction — about the mass reproduction of art that strips it of its aura. Now there’s the same kind of moral panic about art and human exceptionalism and existence. (Cf. Nick Bostrom’s SuperIntelligence). It reminds him of Jakob Mohr’s 1910 The Influencing Machine in which schizophrenics believe they’re being influenced by an external machine. (They always thought men were managing the machine.) He points to what he calls Bostrom’s ultimate colonialism, in which we are able to populate the universe with 10^58 human minds. [Sorry, but I didn’t get this. My fault.] He ties this to Bacon’s reverence for the domination of nature. Blaise prefers a feminist view, citing Kember & Zylinksa’s Life After New Media.

Many say we have a value alignment problem, he says: how do we make AI that embeds human values? But AI systems do have human values because they’re trained on human data. The problem is that our human values are off. He references a paper on judging criminality based on faces. The paper claims it’s free of human biases. But it’s based on data that is biased. Nevertheless, this sort of tech is being commercialized. E.g., Faception claims to classify people based on their faces: High IQ, Pedophile, etc.

Also, there’s the recent paper about a ML system classifies one’s gender preferences based on faces. Blaise ran a test on Mechanical Turk asking about some of the features in the composite gay and straight faces in that paper. He found that people attracted to the same sex were more likely to wear glasses. There were also significant differences in facial hair, use of makeup, and face tan, features also in the composite faces. Thus, the ML system might have been using social markers, not physiognomy, “There are a lot of tells.”

In conclusion, none of these are arguments against ML. On the contrary. The biases and prejudices, and the social signalling, are things ML lets us hold a mirror up to.

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