Ifeoma Ajunwa on the Paradox of Automation as Anti-Bias Intervention

On March 28, 2019, Yale Law School Center for Private Law (together with Information Society Project) held an event featuring Ifeoma Ajunwa (Cornell ILR), who presented the paper she is working on, “The Paradox of Automation as Anti-Bias Intervention.”

A received wisdom, Dr. Ajunwa said, is that automated decision-making serves as an anti-bias intervention. Such a view suits our intuition. Human decision-makers are fallible, sometimes prejudiced, sometimes tired or acting under influence of emotions. Machines, on the other hand, are “objective.” They do what they are programmed to do, not subject to emotions or personal biases. 

However, machines replicate human and societal biases in new forms. The case study Ajunwa presented concerned algorithmic hiring systems. Ajunwa demonstrated how the outcomes of automated hiring often tend to favor the groups already privileged in society, especially regarding race and gender. This undesirable state of affairs results from data-sets used to train the these systems reflecting a hierarchical societal structure. Many advocate for modifying algorithms in ways that would counter this biases, or “wash” the data sets. However, according to Dr. Ajunwa, this is not the best way to think about the problem.

The framing of algorithmic bias as a technical problem is misguided, according to Ajunwa. Rather, bias is introduced in the hiring process, due to an American legal tradition of deference to employers, especially allowing for such nebulous hiring criterion as “cultural fit.” Hence, the trouble is not the technology behind the system, it is the systems itself. Dr. Ajunwa proposed several ways to address the issue. We should, in her view, pay more attention to the existing tools of anti-discrimination law and consider extending protections to job applicants similar to those granted to job applicants.

The Yale Law School Center for Private Law promotes teaching and research in contracts, property and torts at Yale Law School and in the broader legal community. The Center supports scholars, students, and practicing lawyers in all these areas and seeks, especially, to sponsor serious and sustained intellectual engagements among groups who share interests but do not often interact.