Algorithms and machine learning are often applying the same bias and prejudices that humans show, however many people are failing to notice as their attention is elsewhere.
Today’s priority can become yesterday’s issue with simply a new line of code. By the time people notice, the game may be over. Even if someone wanted to correct the system, biases may become so buried they are almost invisible and hard to detect.
An example of this is many organisations spend time, money and energy assisting people to recognise unconscious bias in the workplace through webinars and workshops. This is almost a yesterday’s solution when algorithms are making employment decisions written by predominately young male developers. It is this group, which may not even be employed directly by the company that can transfer their unconscious biases to the algorithm. This is today’s reality.
A sentencing algorithm created in America highlights this. It predicted which people would re-offend after an initial crime. The algorithm falsely said black offenders would offend twice as often as white offenders. The people who were creating the algorithm was predominately white males.
Developers may also be directed to create algorithms that meet specific company requirements which may be biased. If this practice exists, algorithms may be considered trade secrets and are not required to be divulged.
In California, a person was jailed for life based on a piece of software that relied on DNA traces from a crime scene. When the defence asked to see the source code of the algorithm it was denied because it was called a trade secret.
If anyone was convicted of a crime by the information provided by an algorithm, wouldn’t it be their human right to know how the decision was made? Apparently not yet.
Organisations must take notice of the emerging issues with the use of algorithms. Where possible, the methodology used must be visible and transparent. What is the alternative?
Although algorithms are becoming more sophisticated they are not the Holy Grail. Many capable people will simply not fit the algorithm irrespective of bias. Though underestimating the speed at which algorithms are evolving would not be wise. It is espoused that they can detect gender and race by scanning a resume with an 88% accuracy.
In Australia, today it is not possible for an applicant to challenge an algorithm’s decision about the suitability of their application. The process prevents this. The applicant submits their CV online, they subsequently receive an anonymous computer generated an acknowledgement.
If unsuccessful they get another computer-generated response giving no real reason. The whole process is invisible to the applicant and leaves only the applicant’s imagination to understand why.
Even without intent, if the process itself not managed properly may entrench a range of inequalities as previous examples demonstrate. This is very thing many institutions have spent years trying to avoid.
It is easy to imagine that an algorithm may be coded to a specific group. Like an expert from a specific school or country within a certain age bracket. It is not beyond the realms of possibility, particularly if it is a trade secret and there are no rights of appeal.
This scenario helps breed inequality and if history has taught us anything, inequality sews the seeds of societal discontent, often with catastrophic consequences.
As priority decisions made by algorithms must become more visible for both practical and ethical reasons. Imagine if technology could tell the applicant applying for the job, why they did not get it, how the decision was made, and what they could do to increase their opportunities. The impact could be positive for the company’s brand and its ethical approach may help attract talent to their business.
Countries like Germany have created guidelines which provide algorithm visibility. They state that “if an accident is unavoidable the self-driving car must not make any choices over who to save. No decisions should be made on age, sex, race, disabilities, and so on; all human lives matter”.
Statesmen like cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have endorsed a set of principles that reinforce the importance of transparency to ensure that self-thinking machines remain safe and act in humanity’s best interests.
Not every leader has the knowledge available to them that some countries or technologists do. However, today’s leaders have a responsibility to be informed and have enough knowledge to ask the probing and ethical questions. Otherwise, they will be implementing yesterday’s solutions.
The relationship with technology and bias is only one of the complex ethical issues that are facing society today. It becomes even more complex if the system is invisible to the people using it or being affected by it. The power cannot lie solely with the algorithm. Today’s mantra must be algorithm transparency.
The technological revolution is speeding up. By 2030 the consequences of this disruption will make the world we live in and the jobs we perform almost unrecognisable.
Look beyond the driverless automobile and consider the impact of 1 billion working drones.
Preparation is required to skill, reskill and upskill Australians to meet the opportunities and challenges the revolution will deliver.
I want you to imagine the image of an average prosperous Australian adult. They have a job, they have a home, a means of transport, a family, they can afford to go out for a meal, and go on a holiday. There is plenty of fat on their metaphoric bones.
If for some reason the family loses part of their income capability, they have some money in the bank for a rainy day, may have a redundancy payout, or can rely on other family members to obtain work. There are plenty of opportunities to store food in the pantry.
For many Australians, this is a reality, for others an aspiration, and for others an impossibility. However, if you look at the trend data in Australia, that image of the prosperous Australian is starting to waver with many living on the edge in significant debt. They may still be able to live a prosperous life style however, they can’t afford anything to go wrong.
“What lies between most people and destitution is their job”
Satyajit Das Financial Commentator
Most working Australians families including the tax office have relied on regular salaried incomes. This however is unlikely to be the primary employment model in the future. Instead many workers will be “off balance” sheet. They will be self-employed, contract labour or outsourced.
The future of work is more about flexibility and reducing costs. It has been turbo charged by technology and globalisation. There is no going back.
In Australia, there is already a significant reduction in full time employment and increasing trends towards flexible employment options. This is already resulting in Underemployment one of Australian’s most growing workforce concerns.
Have you heard of “dollar ready”? I recently engaged in a conversation with a business person and he said that their organisation was not employing people who were not “dollar ready”. They would employ skilled people from overseas rather than employ juniors or graduates, because they did not provide the dollars on day one. In other words, “dollar ready”.
This attitude is not shared by all but it is powerful language that makes you sit up and take notice. Complacency is not an option considering current trends.
- Youth unemployment is 13.3% and one in five are underemployed. Competition for jobs is intense.
- Graduate employment is the lowest it’s been since the 1992-93 recession.
- Apprenticeship numbers have declined since 2010.
What are they telling us about employment?
The new term coined for the unprecedented wave of job destruction and job recreation, is called the “great disruption”. Over eighty percent of the Australian population have not yet been affected, so their level of consciousness about the implications of a significant employment disruption, is only a vague possibility.
However, many people who are creating the technologies are acutely aware of how potential job losses may affect their customers. One example is Silicon Valley. They are doing their own research project called the “YCombinator”. This is investigating how to provide people with an income if they are unemployed.
“Sam Altman, the head of YCombinator, is so convinced that we’re going to need to figure out new ways of providing people with a means to live that he’s giving ~$20k each to 1,000 people in Oakland for a year just to see what they do with their new jobless income”. data
Lack of employment opportunities, is one of the most significant problems our society faces. It is not about just having a job; it is about having enough work, that pays enough money, to keep Australian citizens financially secure.
The record high underemployment rates, record low wage growth and continued reduction in full time jobs are worrying trends, influenced by the technological revolution.
The signals have been there but our business and political leaders have not heeded the warning signs. Both groups appear to be blindsided by short termism or ignorance. It is not being alarmist or pessimistic. It is facing up to the fact of an emerging problem.
As John McCarthy, the inventor of artificial intelligence said:
Articulating the problem is half the solution.
There are over three billion people in the global workforce. Of those jobs, it is anticipated that over 40 to 50% percent will disappear within a few years. Either blind-sided or blinded by the allure of what technology can offer, governments and businesses have to date, showed few initiatives, to ensure the future employment of its employees and citizens. Quite the reverse.
Many sectors are financially benefiting from outsourcing of labour overseas and introducing labour saving technology. This includes not only call centre work but the wealthy professions like law and accounting. They are retrenching staff and reducing graduate intakes, as they progressively outsource work overseas and invest in employment saving technologies. The consequence is per research conducted by the World Economic forum in 2016 is:
For every professional male job that is created, three male jobs will be lost.
For every professional female job that is created, five female jobs will be lost.
Why is developing confidence in people a strategic advantage for businesses of the future.
The future of work is focused on technology and the importance of people being capable of being innovative and entrepreneurial. According to discussions at Davos in 2017:
For the modern worker, flexible work places have been promoted as the holy grail for work life balance. For many this is correct. Flexible work places have assisted employees arrange their lives in a way that is mutually beneficial for themselves, their families and their employer.
For a growing number of others, this is not correct. People are starting to realise that the consequences and expectations of flexible work arrangements is darkening their lives. The long shadow is primarily accessibility.
We give you flexibility, you give us access to your life.
A type of ill-considered Faustian bargain