Is your software racist?

Li Zhou at Politico: “Late last year, a St. Louis tech executive named Emre Şarbak noticed something strange about Google Translate. He was translating phrases from Turkish — a language that uses a single gender-neutral pronoun “o” instead of “he” or “she.” But when he asked Google’s tool to turn the sentences into English, they seemed to read like a children’s book out of the 1950’s. The ungendered Turkish sentence “o is a nurse” would become “she is a nurse,” while “o is a doctor” would become “he is a doctor.”

The website Quartz went on to compose a sort-of poem highlighting some of these phrases; Google’s translation program decided that soldiers, doctors and entrepreneurs were men, while teachers and nurses were women. Overwhelmingly, the professions were male. Finnish and Chinese translations had similar problems of their own, Quartz noted.

What was going on? Google’s Translate tool “learns” language from an existing corpus of writing, and the writing often includes cultural patterns regarding how men and women are described. Because the model is trained on data that already has biases of its own, the results that it spits out serve only to further replicate and even amplify them.

It might seem strange that a seemingly objective piece of software would yield gender-biased results, but the problem is an increasing concern in the technology world. The term is “algorithmic bias” — the idea that artificially intelligent software, the stuff we count on to do everything from power our Netflix recommendations to determine our qualifications for a loan, often turns out to perpetuate social bias.

Voice-based assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, have struggled to recognize different accents. A Microsoft chatbot on Twitter started spewing racist posts after learning from other users on the platform. In a particularly embarrassing example in 2015, a black computer programmer found that Google’s photo-recognition tool labeled him and a friend as “gorillas.”

Sometimes the results of hidden computer bias are insulting, other times merely annoying. And sometimes the effects are potentially life-changing….(More)”.