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UK government probes algorithm bias in crime, recruitment, and finance

Google DeepMind head Demis Hassabis is an advisor to the government on artificial intelligence ethics. Photo: <span>Jung Yeon-je</span>/AFP/Getty Images
Google DeepMind head Demis Hassabis is an advisor to the government on artificial intelligence ethics. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

The UK government is launching an inquiry into whether algorithms used in areas such as criminal justice, recruitment, and finance are biased against people based on gender or race.

The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) announced the new inquiry on Wednesday. It will be led by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, an independent watchdog set up by the department in 2018 to come up with best practice policy on how to police artificial intelligence.

The Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit, which highlights discrimination in public services, will also work on the new review.

The inquiry comes amid the rapid development of artificial intelligence. The technologies surrounding AI have provided big advances, but also thrown up challenges around the fairness and transparency of decision making. Tech giants such as Amazon (AMZN) have already run into issues of algorithmic bias in recruitment and Google (GOOGL) established a team last year to review the ethics of its AI.

“Technology is a force for good and continues to improve people’s lives, but we must make sure it is developed in a safe and secure way,” digital secretary Jeremy Wright said in a statement.

Highlighting examples of potential pitfalls, DCMS said algorithms used to scan CVs and shortlist candidates could discriminate against certain groups of people due to the unconscious, or conscious, bias of programmers who wrote the code.

It also warned that the growing use of algorithms in finance could lead to a lack of transparency when applied to loans.

READ MORE: Boss of Google’s new hiring tool says UK ‘very, very attractive market’ despite Brexit

Amazon ran into trouble with an AI-powered recruiting tool that discriminated against women. The algorithm was trained using thousands of CVs from past hires, but the male dominance of the tech industry meant that the algorithm came to favour men over women, reinforcing the gender imbalance.

Google announced a set of AI principles last year to help guide the ethical development of the technology and introduced a “formal review structure” to oversea AI development across the company. Demis Hassabis, the cofounder of AI division Google DeepMind, is already an advisor to the UK government on AI ethics through the Office for Artificial Intelligence.

I’m pleased [the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation]’s team of experts is undertaking an investigation into the potential for bias in algorithmic decision-making in areas including crime, justice, and financial services,” Wright said.

“I look forward to seeing the centre’s future recommendations to help make sure we maximise the benefits of these powerful technologies for society.”

These are complex issues and we will need to take advantage of the expertise that exists across the UK and beyond. If we get this right, the UK can be the global leader in responsible innovation,” Roger Taylor, who chairs the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, is expected to say in a speech Wednesday.

“We want to work with organisations so they can maximise the benefits of data driven technology and use it to ensure the decisions they make are fair. As a first step we will be exploring the potential for bias in key sectors where the decisions made by algorithms can have a big impact on people’s lives.”