Wisconsin Supreme Court decision on COMPAS

We finally have the first legal ruling on algorithmic decision making. This case comes from Wisconsin, where Eric Loomis challenged the use of COMPAS for sentencing him.

While the Supreme Court denied the appeal, it made a number of interesting observations and recommendations:

  • “risk scores may not be considered as the determinative factor in deciding whether the offender can be supervised safely and effectively in the community.”
  • “the following warning must be given to sentencing judges: “(1) the proprietary nature of COMPAS has been invoked to prevent disclosure of information relating to how factors are weighed or how risk scores are to be determined; (2) risk assessment compares defendants to a national sample, but no cross- validation study for a Wisconsin population has yet been completed; (3) some studies of COMPAS risk assessment scores have raised questions about whether they disproportionately classify minority offenders as having a higher risk of recidivism; and (4) risk assessment tools must be constantly monitored and re-normed for accuracy due to changing populations and subpopulations.”

Like Danielle Citron (the author of the Forbes article) I’m a little skeptical that this will be enough. Warning labels on cigarette boxes didn’t really stop people smoking. But I think as part of a larger effort to increase awareness of the risks, and to make people even stop and think a little before blindly forging ahead with algorithms, this is a decent first step.

At the AINow Symposium in New York (that I’ll say more about later), one proposed extreme along the policy spectrum regarding algorithic decision-making was to place a moratorium on the use of algorithms entirely. I don’t know if that makes complete sense. But a heavy heavy dose of caution is definitely warranted, and rulings like this might lead to a patchwork of caveats and speedbumps that help us flesh out exactly where algorithmic decision making makes more or less sense.



Friday links

  • The ACLU together with four researchers in algorithmic accountability is challenging the CFAA (The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), arguing that its provisions make it illegal to do the necessary auditing of algorithms to test for discrimination and bias.
  • The popular word2vec embedding method for words might learn biased associations, such as associating the word ‘nurse’ with the gender ‘female’ and so on. A new paper seeks to fix this problem.
  • Diversity in teams that build AI might help the algorithms themselves be less biased.

Testing algorithmic decision-making in court.

Well that was quick!

On the heels of the ProPublica article about bias in algorithmic decision-making in the criminal justice system, a lawsuit now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court could mark the first legal determination about the use of algorithmic methods in sentencing.

The first few paragraphs of the article summarize the issue at hand:

When Eric L. Loomis was sentenced for eluding the police in La Crosse, Wis., the judge told him he presented a “high risk” to the community and handed down a six-year prison term.

The judge said he had arrived at his sentencing decision in part because of Mr. Loomis’s rating on the Compas assessment, a secret algorithm used in the Wisconsin justice system to calculate the likelihood that someone will commit another crime.

Mr. Loomis has challenged the judge’s reliance on the Compas score, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which heard arguments on his appeal in April, could rule in the coming days or weeks. Mr. Loomis’s appeal centers on the criteria used by the Compas algorithm, which is proprietary and as a result is protected, and on the differences in its application for men and women.

Racist risk assessments, algorithmic fairness, and the issue of harm

By now, you are likely to have heard of the fascinating report (and white paper) released by ProPublica describing the way that risk assessment algorithms in the criminal justice system appear to affect different races differently, and are not particularly accurate in their predictions. Even worse, they are even worse at predicting outcomes for black subjects than for white. Notice that this is a separate problem than ensuring equal outcomes pace disparate impact: it’s the problem of ensuring equal failure modes as well.


There is much to pick apart in this article, and you should read the whole thing yourself. But from the perspective of research in algorithmic fairness, and how this research is discussed in the media, there’s another very important consequence of this work.

It provides concrete examples of people who have possibly been harmed by algorithmic decision-making. 

We talk to reporters frequently about the larger set of questions surrounding algorithmic accountability and eventually they always ask some version of:

Can you point to anyone who’s actually been harmed by algorithms?

and we’ve never been able to point to specific instances so far. But now, after this article, we can.


Algorithmic Fairness at the LSE

In April, I attended (virtually) a workshop organized by the Media Policy Project of the London School of Economics on “Automation, Prediction and Digital Inequalities”. 

As part of the workshop, I was asked to write a “provocation” that I read at the workshop. This was subsequently converted into a blog post for the MPP’s blog, and here it is.

The case I make here (that I will expand on in the next post) is for trying to develop a mathematical framework for thinking about fairness in algorithms. As a computer scientist, this idea seems like second nature to me, but I recognize that to the larger community of people thinking about fairness in society, this case needs to be argued.

White House Report on Algorithmic Fairness

The White House has put out a report on big data and algorithmic fairness (announcement, full report).  From the announcement:

Using case studies on credit lending, employment, higher education, and criminal justice, the report we are releasing today illustrates how big data techniques can be used to detect bias and prevent discrimination. It also demonstrates the risks involved, particularly how technologies can deliberately or inadvertently perpetuate, exacerbate, or mask discrimination.

The table of contents for the report gives a good overview of the issues addressed:

Big Data and Access to Credit
The Problem: Many Americans lack access to affordable credit due to thin or non-existent credit files.
The Big Data Opportunity: Use of big data in lending can increase access to credit for the financially underserved.
The Big Data Challenge: Expanding access to affordable credit while preserving consumer rights that protect against discrimination in credit eligibility decisions

Big Data and Employment
The Problem: Traditional hiring practices may unnecessarily filter out applicants whose skills match the job opening.
The Big Data Opportunity: Big data can be used to uncover or possibly reduce employment discrimination.
The Big Data Challenge: Promoting fairness, ethics, and mechanisms for mitigating discrimination in employment opportunity.

Big Data and Higher Education
The Problem: Students often face challenges accessing higher education, finding information to help choose the right college, and staying enrolled.
The Big Data Opportunity: Using big data can increase educational opportunities for the students who most need them.
The Big Data Challenge: Administrators must be careful to address the possibility of discrimination in higher education admissions decisions.

Big Data and Criminal Justice
The Problem: In a rapidly evolving world, law enforcement officials are looking for smart ways to use new technologies to increase community safety and trust.
The Big Data Opportunity: Data and algorithms can potentially help law enforcement become more transparent, effective, and efficient.
The Big Data Challenge: The law enforcement community can use new technologies to enhance trust and public safety in the community, especially through measures that promote transparency and accountability and mitigate risks of disparities in treatment and outcomes based on individual characteristics.