Dominique Cardon on algorithmic fairness

Issues of fairness in algorithms are not limited to the US. There is a robust research effort in many parts of Europe on issues of fairness and discrimination. The regulatory regimes and legal frameworks are different in Europe, which makes the discussions quite different. But the concerns are universal.

The linked article (in French) is an interview with Dominique Cardon, a French sociologist who’s written a new book on algorithms and big data. Since I don’t speak French, my understanding of the interview is limited to the translation. However, he makes a number of interesting points about our new algorithmic world:

  • that the effect of algorithmic governance in our world cannot be thought of in terms of traditional controls like censorship. It’s more of a bottom up ‘nudge’-based system that constructs elaborate and invisible rewards. To use the somewhat trite but still-useful analogy, it’s not 1984, but a Brave New World, and is all the more insidious for it.
  • We can’t disengage from an algorithmic world: the whole “if you don’t like being watched, don’t go on Facebook” argument is rapidly losing credibility, because eventually we will have no choice but to participate and contribute to the floods of data being generated. This makes “opening the black box” even more crucial.

Not surprisingly, I was happy to hear his points about fairness in algorithms: specifically,

You can not ask an algorithm to be “neutral.” However, it must be “fair.” [….] And for that, it is useful for researchers and civil society [to] create instruments of verification and control.

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