Democrats renew push for ‘algorithmic accountability’

Ryan is a senior editor at TechForge Media with over a decade of experience covering the latest technology and interviewing leading industry figures. He can often be sighted at tech conferences with a strong coffee in one hand and a laptop in the other. If it's geeky, he’s probably into it. Find him on Twitter: @Gadget_Ry

Democrats have reintroduced their Algorithmic Accountability Act that seeks to hold tech firms accountable for bias in their algorithms.

The bill is an updated version of one first introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in 2019 but never passed the House or Senate. The updated bill was introduced this week by Wyden alongside Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Yvette Clarke (D-NY)

Concern about bias in algorithms is increasing as they become used for ever more critical decisions. Bias would lead to inequalities being automated—with some people being given more opportunities than others.

“As algorithms and other automated decision systems take on increasingly prominent roles in our lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are adequately assessed for biases that may disadvantage minority or marginalised communities,” said Booker.

A human can always be held accountable for a decision to, say, reject a mortgage/loan application. There’s currently little-to-no accountability for algorithmic decisions.

Representative Yvette Clarke explained:

“When algorithms determine who goes to college, who gets healthcare, who gets a home, and even who goes to prison, algorithmic discrimination must be treated as the highly significant issue that it is.

These large and impactful decisions, which have become increasingly void of human input, are forming the foundation of our American society that generations to come will build upon. And yet, they are subject to a wide range of flaws from programming bias to faulty datasets that can reinforce broader societal discrimination, particularly against women and people of colour.

It is long past time Congress act to hold companies and software developers accountable for their discrimination by automation

With our renewed Algorithmic Accountability Act, large companies will no longer be able to turn a blind eye towards the deleterious impact of their automated systems, intended or not. We must ensure that our 21st Century technologies become tools of empowerment, rather than marginalisation and seclusion.”

The bill would force audits of AI systems; with findings reported to the Federal Trade Commission. A public database would be created so decisions can be reviewed to give confidence to consumers.

“If someone decides not to rent you a house because of the colour of your skin, that’s flat-out illegal discrimination. Using a flawed algorithm or software that results in discrimination and bias is just as bad,” commented Wyden.

“Our bill will pull back the curtain on the secret algorithms that can decide whether Americans get to see a doctor, rent a house, or get into a school. Transparency and accountability are essential to give consumers choice and provide policymakers with the information needed to set the rules of the road for critical decision systems.”

In our predictions for the AI industry in 2022, we predicted an increased focus on Explainable AI (XAI). XAI is artificial intelligence in which the results of the solution can be understood by humans and is seen as a partial solution to algorithmic bias.

“Too often, Big Tech’s algorithms put profits before people, from negatively impacting young people’s mental health, to discriminating against people based on race, ethnicity, or gender, and everything in between,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis), who is co-sponsoring the bill.

“It is long past time for the American public and policymakers to get a look under the hood and see how these algorithms are being used and what next steps need to be taken to protect consumers.”

Joining Baldwin in co-sponsoring the Algorithmic Accountability Act are Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Bob Casey (D-Pa), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

A copy of the full bill is available here (PDF)

(Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash)

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