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Towards fair algorithms

By Markus Christen, Karin Lange, Christoph Heitz, Michele Loi

Meeting of Expert Group Data Ethics, March 7 2022

The Data Ethics Expert Group is advancing its expertise in algorithm and data ethics: Two trendy topics were discussed in the Expert Group meeting from March 7: fair algorithms and the demand for consulting in ethical and societal issues of data business. Furthermore, an Ethos study on digital responsibility of enterprises has been presented to the community and two events for 2022 were prepared at the meeting. 16 persons participated in the online meeting.

Algorithms are increasingly used to support or even automatize decisions with relevant impact on the life of humans: obtaining credits, insurance premiums or even access to certain resources is increasingly shaped by tools that use machine learning. This raises the issue of “fairness” of the decisions; in particular to avoid discrimination of certain people. Members of the Expert Group are involved in two ongoing research projects on that matter. One project – “Socially acceptable AI and fairness trade-offs in predictive analytics” – is part of the National Research Programme 77 on Digital Transformation, the other project – Algorithmic Fairness in data-based decision making: Combining ethics and technology – is funded by Innosuisse. Christoph Heitz from ZHAW has presented an overview on the ongoing research.

Both projects share the same intention, the development of an integrated methodology to create socially fair algorithms. In doing so, both philosophical questions (e.g., what is “fair” in a given context”) as well as computer science problems (e.g., how to implement fairness technically in an algorithm) have to be resolved. One intermediate result of the project so far is the “fairness lab” – a toolbox where data scientists can experience the consequences of implementing different fairness definitions into a maching learning algorithm.

Interested people can gain more insight on this topic in a special workshop that accompanies the upcoming Swiss Conference on Data Science on June 22. During the workshop “How to Develop Fair Algorithms?” participants with a background in data science …

… learn how to combine data-based prediction models with fairness requirements;

… learn how algorithmic (un)fairness is defined and measured in a practical context;

… learn how to construct fair decision algorithms while still harvesting the benefit of a good prediction model; and they

… will apply the methodology to concrete use cases and examples.

Ethics consulting for companies

In a second talk, Sophia Ding, managing consultant at the AWK Group, presented the emerging needs of businesses to better understand data ethics. Based on a survey in 2022 (online survey, N=225, source: dealing with data is the number one reason why companies face ethical issues in their projects. Around 70% of respondents reported potentially problematic projects. The majority of these projects concern the handling of data, for example questionable data evaluations. Much less common are measures that contribute to the monitoring of employees and the use of monitoring of employees, and the use of controversial technologies such as facial or voice recognition.

According to Ding, the lack of specific regulations for data driven AI systems could lead to a focus on ethical principles as guidance for self-regulation. Thus, companies with mature data science departments start gaining an interest in ethical topics regarding data driven systems. The demand is primarily driven by compliance or risk management, less by data science teams.

An expression for this increasing interest in data ethics is a study by the Ethos Foundation, presented by Jean-Henry Morin of the University of Geneva. The study “Corporate digital responsibility of SMI Expanded Index companies” from January 2022 (source: analyzed 48 companies. The results show that companies still lack transparency about their digital practices and that their degree of preparation for issues such as ethics in artificial intelligence are still in their early stages.

Upcoming events

The Expert Group will thus put a stronger focus on making current research on data ethics applicable and known for businesses. Two events are planned in that respect. One event on June 16 will focus on “Tools for Ethical Decision-Making”. At the event, the new “digital trust” label of the Swiss Digital Initiative will be presented. This label is awarded after a thorough audit process, which aims to create a certain standard: Meeting 35 mandatory criteria across four dimensions with an application. Sarah Gädig from the Swiss Digital Initiative will introduce the label and the criteria – just a few days after the Label will be presented for the first time at the WEF in Davos end of May. A second event organized in fall 2022 will focus on the role of ethics for sustainable data business. This event will be organized as a joint venture with the Digital Society Initiative of the University of Zurich and Economiesuisse. Stay tuned!