By the Blouin News Technology staff

How computer algorithms can be racist

by in Personal Tech.

Graph view - math algorithms. (Source: Stephen Schultz/flickr)

Graph view – math algorithms. (Source: Stephen Schultz/flickr)

To the layperson, computer algorithms are enigmatic and allow a computer to solve a problem (for example, suggesting movies, mapping, or prediction). One assumes that such computer programs are void of human bias. Over the last few months, reports have indicated the contrary.

ProPublica report published this week says that risk assessment algorithms, such as ones that are used in courts to better inform judges during criminal sentencing, are biased against black people. Certain algorithms can be used to rate a person’s risk of future crime. The report notes that the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections now “encourages the use of such combined assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process. And a landmark sentencing reform bill currently pending in Congress would mandate the use of such assessments in federal prisons.”

Risk scores have long been suspected of reflecting racial bias, but efforts to find out exactly how biased they are — or how racist they are — have stagnated. According to ProPublica, research shows that risk scores of more than 7,000 people indicated that the algorithm used to predict their risk of future crime made mistakes such as falsely flagging black defendants and mislabeling white defendants as low-risk…

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