Algorithmic bias: on the implicit biases of social technology

Synthese 198 (10):9941-9961 (2020)
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Often machine learning programs inherit social patterns reflected in their training data without any directed effort by programmers to include such biases. Computer scientists call this algorithmic bias. This paper explores the relationship between machine bias and human cognitive bias. In it, I argue similarities between algorithmic and cognitive biases indicate a disconcerting sense in which sources of bias emerge out of seemingly innocuous patterns of information processing. The emergent nature of this bias obscures the existence of the bias itself, making it difficult to identify, mitigate, or evaluate using standard resources in epistemology and ethics. I demonstrate these points in the case of mitigation techniques by presenting what I call ‘the Proxy Problem’. One reason biases resist revision is that they rely on proxy attributes, seemingly innocuous attributes that correlate with socially-sensitive attributes, serving as proxies for the socially-sensitive attributes themselves. I argue that in both human and algorithmic domains, this problem presents a common dilemma for mitigation: attempts to discourage reliance on proxy attributes risk a tradeoff with judgement accuracy. This problem, I contend, admits of no purely algorithmic solution.



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Gabbrielle M. Johnson
Claremont McKenna College

Citations of this work

Oppressive Things.Shen-yi Liao & Bryce Huebner - 2020 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 103 (1):92-113.
On statistical criteria of algorithmic fairness.Brian Hedden - 2021 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 49 (2):209-231.
The Importance of Forgetting.Rima Basu - 2022 - Episteme 19 (4):471-490.
Engineering Social Concepts: Feasibility and Causal Models.Eleonore Neufeld - forthcoming - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
Algorithms and the Individual in Criminal Law.Renée Jorgensen - 2022 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 52 (1):1-17.

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References found in this work

The wrongs of racist beliefs.Rima Basu - 2018 - Philosophical Studies 176 (9):2497-2515.
What is a (social) structural explanation?Sally Haslanger - 2016 - Philosophical Studies 173 (1):113-130.
What We Epistemically Owe To Each Other.Rima Basu - 2019 - Philosophical Studies 176 (4):915–931.
The Imperative of Integration.Elizabeth Anderson - 2010 - Princeton University Press.

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