The Ethics of Algorithms

The Ethics of Algorithms

It’s not the algorithm's fault that society is racist. For five years the British government used a racist algorithm in order to help determine the outcome of visa applications.

For five years the British government used a racist algorithm in order to help determine the outcome of visa applications. Last week they announced that it “needs to be rebuilt from the ground up”.

“The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal, found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates. This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”

This is a colossal victory for everyone, the government has begun to identify parts of the racist machine and is now dismantling them. This is justice. But how did the government get their hands on a racist algorithm? Who designed it? And should they be punished?

‘Hand-Written’ Algorithms

Historically algorithms were ‘hand-written’ whereby the developers would manually set parameters that would dictate the outcome of an algorithm. A famous example is Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm, which would consider a measly three factors (user affinity, content weighting and time-based decay).

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Facebooks Newsfeed Algorithm until 2011 — Edgerank (source)

The score between users is calculated based on how ‘strong’ the developers of the algorithm perceive their interactions to be e.g. they dictate that if you shared your mate’s post last week, you like them 20% more than your other mate who made a similar post and you only liked it instead.

At that point, it would’ve been quite easy for Facebook to be accountable for the results of their algorithms. They told it exactly what to do so they could be held liable for the outcomes of their algorithm. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, popular commercial algorithms have undergone a radical change in design. The parameters that were once ‘hand-written’ are now decided by a ghost in the machine.

ethics windrush facebook big-data machine-learning algorithms

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