Technologies driven by algorithms and artificial intelligence are increasingly present in our lives, and we are now regularly bumping up against a thorny question: can these programs be neutral actors? Or will they always reflect some degree of human bias?
The dustup over Facebook’s “trending topics” list and its possible liberal bias hit such a nerve that the U.S. Senate called on the company to come up with an official explanation, and this week COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company will begin training employees to identify and control their political leanings.
This is just one result, however, of a broader trend that Fred Benenson, Kickstarter’s former data chief, calls “mathwashing”: our tendency to idolize programs like Facebook’s as entirely objective because they have mathematics at their core.
One area of potential bias comes from the fact that so many of the programmers creating these programs, especially machine-learning experts, are male. In a recent Bloomberg article, Margaret Mitchell, a researcher at Microsoft, is quoted lamenting the dangers of a “sea of dudes” asking the questions central to creating these programs.