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.
“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.
Have you heard of the term being “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.
This attitude is not shared by all businesses; however, the term “dollar ready” is evocative language. It does make you sit up and take notice, especially when you are aware of the youth unemployment trends in Australia.
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
I recently went on a short holiday to western Queensland and as a part of my travels I went and visited a lake. I remember it was a glorious winter’s day and as I was wandering along the shoreline, I, by chance, had a conversation with a middle age local woman; let’s say her name was Jane. We exchanged the normal pleasantries, and as a part of our exchange we discussed a lot about her work. Like many conversations between strangers, anonymity provided the basis for an honest conversation. Almost like reverse road rage in some ways. This brief connection provided more insight into an average Australian’s view of work than any employee survey could provide. Let me explain by sharing the conversation and unpacking some of those insights.
Jane, I discovered, worked for a supermarket chain and had done so for 27 years as a full time employee. She was one of the few remaining “full timers” as almost all new employees were predominately employed on casual or part time hours. She reflected that in the beginning everyone was employed on a permanent basis, managers stayed in their positions and she described it like working together as a family. Everyone used to help each other out. If one person’s department was running late or customers were lined up at the check out, every one would pitch in to help each other.
I have spent hours writing an article on employee engagement and at the end of it I realised that Employee Engagement is passing its use by date. The world of work is changing dramatically. There should be no expectations by employers that employees will be so absorbed by their work, that they will use discretionary effort for the benefit of the company. Those days are going, if not gone.
When I was researching the area, I was looking for information that supported investing in employee engagement. What became apparent to me was with the advent of redundancies, restructures, and endless cost cutting measures, trust has been predominately lost between the employee and employer, with little chance of reconciliation.
Irrespective of this there was no “evidence” that employee engagement leads to better company performance. There are only studies that show a correlation. Some research suggests that the best performers in companies are actually those who are less engaged, suggesting at least that the construct is wrong.
Yet interestingly 78% of business leaders believe engagement is an urgent or important issue. They spend huge amounts of money identifying how engaged people are. What they seemingly fail to recognise is that employees are so sceptical or fearful of the confidentiality of such surveys; much of the information gathered within companies is potentially flawed.
A consequence of a secret fear of failure.
Achilles Heel Syndrome (AHS) is a consequence of a secret fear of failure and due to modern day circumstances I believe it is becoming more prevalent.
AHS, although it is not a new concept, I don’t believe it is well understood. My aim therefore is to explain the concept, understand why it is becoming more prevalent and explore actions that organisations can take to reduce the incidence of AHS.
What is Achilles Heel Syndrome? (AHS)
I first discovered AHS when reading Petruska Clarkson’s book Achilles Heel Syndrome. The term Achilles’ heel is used when referring to one’s vulnerability and it is spawned from Greek Mythology.
Acknowledgement. The big “A” word is one of the most significant things we can do when managing people, yet how often do we consider its importance, forget about it or stuff it up completely? How often do we think about acknowledgement as the “big things”, like the awards night rather than all the “little things” that make up the tapestry of being valued? How often do we here people say, “It is just the little things”?
Why should this be important? It contributes to employee engagement. Aon Hewitt has completed a number of global studies and in 2014 results showed that 39% of employees are disengaged and that percentage is the same in the Asia Pacific region. Some experts are saying we are experiencing an epidemic of employee disengagement. Reasons outlined for employee disengagement are many. However poor communication, lack of feedback and poor HR practices are significant contributing factors. Employees being disengaged are high;
“Gallup estimates that these actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity. They are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away.”Sep 23, 2013