On algorithmic bias

The latest entrant to the increasingly shrill debate on artificial intelligence is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, first-time Congresswoman from New York and darling of American left-liberals. At a recent event, Ocasio-Cortez sounded a warning bell about AI noting “[a]lgorithms are still made by human beings, and those algorithms are still pegged to basic human assumptions.” She went on to say: “They’re just automated assumptions. And if you don’t fix the bias, then you are just automating the bias.” Given to hyperbole (and enticed by prospects of a handsome royalty check), one American humanities professor even published a book titled “Algorithms of Oppression.” Closer home, two Indian experts — in a pioneering 2017 article — noted: “As coders and consumers of technology are largely male, they are crafting algorithms that absorb existing gender and racial prejudices.”

While well-meaning and presumably driven by social concerns, these statements — taken at their face value — are inaccurate. And the fallacy in all of them has to do with an incorrect characterization of what algorithms are and what they do. To see this, let us recap some basic notions from computing. Continue reading “On algorithmic bias”