Algorithms in decision-making

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The House of Commons science and technology committee launched an inquiry into ‘Algorithms in decision-making’ following a fantastic pitch from our policy manager Dr Stephanie Mathisen. The new committee took up the inquiry in September 2017 and are now accepting evidence.

As Steph argues, algorithms — quite rapidly and without debate — have come to replace humans in making decisions that affect many aspects of our lives, from criminal justice to education. Algorithms in themselves are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but where the public has little access to information about the workings of algorithms in decision-making, there is a serious lack of transparency and therefore accountability and choice.

This is an issue that many of you have raised with us, especially since the 2013 Sense about Science lecture given by Cory Doctorow.

Thanks to all of you who have let the committee know how important this issue is.

“Algorithms are being used in everything from sifting job applications, calculating credit scores and offering loans and mortgages to deciding whether to release prisoners on bail. These are crucial moments, and the impact of those decisions can be enormous.

Of course, manual decision procedures would have existed before the involvement of a computer. What’s different about computer algorithms is the sheer volume and complexity of the data that can be factored in to decisions, and the potential to apply error and discrimination systematically.

The lack of transparency around algorithms is a serious issue. If we don’t know exactly how they arrive at decisions, how can we judge the quality of those decisions? Or challenge them when we disagree?”

Read the rest of Steph’s op-ed: Algorithms in decision-making inquiry: Stephanie Mathisen on challenging MPs to investigate accountability, Public Technology (28 Feb 2017)

Algorithms Inquiry

The committee has taken written evidence on the points below and is now following up with oral evidence.

  • The extent of current and future use of algorithms in decision-making in Government and public bodies, businesses and others, and the corresponding risks and opportunities;
  • Whether ‘good practice’ in algorithmic decision-making can be identified and spread, including in terms of:
    —  The scope for algorithmic decision-making to eliminate, introduce or amplify biases or discrimination, and how any such bias can be detected and overcome;
    — Whether and how algorithmic decision-making can be conducted in a ‘transparent’ or ‘accountable’ way, and the scope for decisions made by an algorithm to be fully understood and challenged;
    — The implications of increased transparency in terms of copyright and commercial sensitivity, and protection of an individual’s data;
  • Methods for providing regulatory oversight of algorithmic decision-making, such as the rights described in the EU General Data Protection Regulation 2016.

Read all transcripts, written evidence and other material previously submitted to the algorithms in decision-making inquiry.

Select coverage

MPs to investigate the use of algorithms in decision-making, Public Technology (28 Feb 2017)

Algorithms in decision-making inquiry launched, Commons Select Committee (28 Feb 2017)

UK Parliament to hold inquiry into algorithmic transparency. BoingBoing (1 Mar 2017)

Published: 28 February 2017, updated 7 December 2017