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Is artificial intelligence a guarantor of social justice?

In the rapidly evolving field of artificial intelligence (AI), the quest for fair and equitable decision-making has become a paramount concern. As AI systems increasingly influence critical areas such as employment, finance, and healthcare, ensuring that these decisions do not perpetuate societal biases or disadvantage certain groups has emerged as a significant challenge.



Addressing this challenge, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Stevens Institute of Technology have introduced a groundbreaking new approach to assessing the fairness of AI decisions. In a recently published paper, they draw upon the well-established tradition of social welfare optimization, which aims to make decisions fairer by focusing on the overall benefits and harms to individuals.

"In assessing fairness, the AI community tries to ensure equitable treatment for groups that differ in economic level, race, ethnic background, gender, and other categories," explained John Hooker, professor of operations research at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon, who coauthored the study and presented the paper at the International Conference on the Integration of Constraint Programming, Artificial Intelligence, and Operations Research (CPAIOR). The paper received the prestigious Best Paper Award, underscoring its significance and potential impact.

The study challenges the industry standard assessment tools for AI fairness, which primarily focus on approval rates across protected groups. While this approach ensures that the same percentage of people from different groups receive approval, it fails to consider the varying impacts of denial on individuals from disadvantaged groups.

Imagine a scenario where an AI system determines who receives a mortgage or job interview. Traditional fairness methods might ensure that the approval rates are equal across different racial or socioeconomic groups. However, what if being denied a mortgage has a much more severe negative impact on someone from a disadvantaged group than on someone from an advantaged group? By employing a social welfare optimization method, AI systems can make decisions that lead to better overall outcomes for everyone, with a particular emphasis on those in disadvantaged groups.

The study introduces the concept of "alpha fairness," a method that strikes a balance between being fair and achieving the greatest benefit for all individuals. Alpha fairness can be adjusted to prioritize fairness or efficiency more or less, depending on the specific context and requirements.

Hooker and his co-authors demonstrate how social welfare optimization can be used to compare different assessments for group fairness currently employed in AI. By applying this method, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the benefits and limitations of various group fairness tools in different contexts. Additionally, it ties these group fairness assessment tools to the broader framework of fairness-efficiency standards used in economics and engineering.

Derek Leben, associate teaching professor of business ethics at the Tepper School, and Violet Chen, assistant professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, who received her Ph.D. from the Tepper School, co-authored the groundbreaking study.

"Our findings suggest that social welfare optimization can shed light on the intensely discussed question of how to achieve group fairness in AI," Leben said, highlighting the study's potential to inform and guide the ongoing discourse surrounding fair and equitable AI development.

The study holds significant implications for both AI system developers and policymakers. By adopting a broader approach to fairness and understanding the limitations of traditional fairness measures, developers can create more equitable and effective AI models. Additionally, the research underscores the importance of considering social justice in AI development, ensuring that technology promotes equity across diverse groups in society.

As AI continues to permeate various aspects of our lives, the need for fair and unbiased decision-making becomes increasingly crucial. This groundbreaking study presents a novel and promising approach to addressing this challenge, offering a path towards AI systems that not only ensure equal treatment but also actively work to improve outcomes for all individuals, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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