Data ethics centre and Race Disparity Unit to investigate algorithm bias

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The government’s data ethics centre and the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit will launch a joint investigation into the potential for bias in algorithmic decision-making, it has been announced.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will examine how human biases can affect the outcomes of decisions made using algorithms in the criminal justice system, local government, recruitment and financial services, it said in a strategy document published this week.

The strategy sets out CDEI’s priorities for the next two years, and is the first such document to be published since its board met for the first time in December. The strategy also sets out the centre's plans for public engagement to help people better understand how data-driven technology is used, in the hope of creating a “trusted and trustworthy environment for innovation”.

Algorithms are sometimes used in a bid to rule out unconscious bias in decision-making, but there is there is growing concern about the potential for developers to inadvertently embed their own biases into algorithms they create. There have been reports of algorithms used to screen CVs displaying gender bias, for example.

The Race Disparity Unit, which analyses government data on the experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds, will work with CDEI on the project to explore the risk of people being discriminated against according to their ethnicity in decisions made in the criminal justice system. Together, the two bodies will come up with a set of recommendations for government.

Announcing the investigation, the government said there was scope for algorithms to be used to assess the likelihood of reoffending and inform decisions about policing, probation and parole.

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