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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New research offers strategies to prevent algorithms used in business from pushing unethical policies.

Why it matters: Machine-learning algorithms are increasingly being deployed in commercial settings. If they are optimized only to seek maximum revenue, they can end up treating customers in unethical ways, putting companies at reputational or even regulatory risk.

How it works: In a paper published on Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, researchers formulated what they call the "Unethical Optimization Principle."

  • It essentially boils down to the idea that "if there is an advantage to something that will be perceived as unethical, then it is quite likely the machine learning is going to find it," says Robert MacKay, a mathematician at the University of Warwick and an author of the paper.
  • MacKay uses the example of an algorithm that prices insurance products. If it is optimized only to maximize revenue, it's likely to treat customers unfairly and even unlawfully, selecting a higher price for users whose names code as non-white.
  • In their paper, MacKay and his colleagues lay out complex mathematics that can help businesses and regulators detect the unethical strategies an algorithm might pursue in a given space and identify how the AI should be modified to prevent that behavior.

The big picture: As increasingly sophisticated algorithms take more decisions out of the hand of humans, it becomes even more important for programmers to set initial clear limits.

  • Unfortunately, as a new survey from the data science platform Anaconda demonstrates, while data scientists are increasingly concerned about the ethical implications of their work, 39% of those polled say their team has no plans in place to address fairness or bias.
  • "Businesses using algorithms need to ask questions of 'ought,' rather than just 'can,'" says Peter Wang, Anaconda's CEO.

Go deeper

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
6 mins ago - Sports

The NCAA's summer of change

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The college sports landscape has changed more this summer than at any other point in history, as the NCAA grapples with new rules and shifting power dynamics.

The state of play: When NCAA competition resumes this fall, everyone involved — from student-athletes and coaches, to universities and fans — will be entering a new world.

Mike Allen, author of AM
58 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Ohio upset's '22 clues

Shontel Brown campaigns with Rep. James Clyburn in Cleveland on July 31. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

An upset in Ohio on Tuesday night is giving moderate, Biden-aligned Democrats momentum vs. the party's vocal left ahead of next year's midterms.

Driving the news: In a special primary for U.S. House in the Cleveland area, Cuyahoga County Council member Shontel Brown pulled out a surprise victory for the Democratic establishment in Cleveland.

2 hours ago - Health

New York City revives vaccine passports

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New York City yesterday became the first city in the U.S. to require proof of coronavirus vaccination for indoor dining and other leisure activities, a measure popular among public health experts but previously squashed by political backlash to "vaccine passports."

Why it matters: Employers and now local governments are starting to ensure that remaining unvaccinated will have consequences for everyday life, testing the resolve of those who say nothing could persuade them to get a shot.