Civil Rights & Constitutional Law

AI Research Is in Desperate Need of an Ethical Watchdog


About a week ago, Stanford University researchers posted online a study on the latest dystopian AI: They'd made a machine learning algorithm that essentially works as gaydar. After training the algorithm with tens of thousands of photographs from a dating site, the algorithm could, for example, guess if a white man in a photograph was gay with 81 percent accuracy. They wanted to protect gay people. "[Our] findings expose a threat to the privacy and safety of gay men and women," wrote Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang in the paper. They built the bomb so they could alert the public about its dangers.



Stanford's review board approved Kosinski and Wang's study. "The vast, vast, vast majority of what we call'big data' research does not fall under the purview of federal regulations," says Metcalf. Take a recent example: Last month, researchers affiliated with Stony Brook University and several major internet companies released a free app, a machine learning algorithm that guesses ethnicity and nationality from a name to about 80 percent accuracy. The group also went through an ethics review at the company that provided training list of names, although Metcalf says that an evaluation at a private company is the "weakest level of review that they could do."