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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Why We Need to Audit Algorithms

James Guszcza, Iyad Rahwan Will, Bible Manuel Cebrian, & Vic Katyal
Harvard Business Review
Originally published November 28, 2018

Algorithmic decision-making and artificial intelligence (AI) hold enormous potential and are likely to be economic blockbusters, but we worry that the hype has led many people to overlook the serious problems of introducing algorithms into business and society. Indeed, we see many succumbing to what Microsoft’s Kate Crawford calls “data fundamentalism” — the notion that massive datasets are repositories that yield reliable and objective truths, if only we can extract them using machine learning tools. A more nuanced view is needed. It is by now abundantly clear that, left unchecked, AI algorithms embedded in digital and social technologies can encode societal biases, accelerate the spread of rumors and disinformation, amplify echo chambers of public opinion, hijack our attention, and even impair our mental wellbeing.

Ensuring that societal values are reflected in algorithms and AI technologies will require no less creativity, hard work, and innovation than developing the AI technologies themselves. We have a proposal for a good place to start: auditing. Companies have long been required to issue audited financial statements for the benefit of financial markets and other stakeholders. That’s because — like algorithms — companies’ internal operations appear as “black boxes” to those on the outside. This gives managers an informational advantage over the investing public which could be abused by unethical actors. Requiring managers to report periodically on their operations provides a check on that advantage. To bolster the trustworthiness of these reports, independent auditors are hired to provide reasonable assurance that the reports coming from the “black box” are free of material misstatement. Should we not subject societally impactful “black box” algorithms to comparable scrutiny?

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