Facial-recognition research needs an ethical reckoning

Editorial in Nature: “…As Nature reports in a series of Features on facial recognition this week, many in the field are rightly worried about how the technology is being used. They know that their work enables people to be easily identified, and therefore targeted, on an unprecedented scale. Some scientists are analysing the inaccuracies and biases inherent in facial-recognition technology, warning of discrimination, and joining the campaigners calling for stronger regulation, greater transparency, consultation with the communities that are being monitored by cameras — and for use of the technology to be suspended while lawmakers reconsider where and how it should be used. The technology might well have benefits, but these need to be assessed against the risks, which is why it needs to be properly and carefully regulated.Is facial recognition too biased to be let loose?

Responsible studies

Some scientists are urging a rethink of ethics in the field of facial-recognition research, too. They are arguing, for example, that scientists should not be doing certain types of research. Many are angry about academic studies that sought to study the faces of people from vulnerable groups, such as the Uyghur population in China, whom the government has subjected to surveillance and detained on a mass scale.

Others have condemned papers that sought to classify faces by scientifically and ethically dubious measures such as criminality….One problem is that AI guidance tends to consist of principles that aren’t easily translated into practice. Last year, the philosopher Brent Mittelstadt at the University of Oxford, UK, noted that at least 84 AI ethics initiatives had produced high-level principles on both the ethical development and deployment of AI (B. Mittelstadt Nature Mach. Intell. 1, 501–507; 2019). These tended to converge around classical medical-ethics concepts, such as respect for human autonomy, the prevention of harm, fairness and explicability (or transparency). But Mittelstadt pointed out that different cultures disagree fundamentally on what principles such as ‘fairness’ or ‘respect for autonomy’ actually mean in practice. Medicine has internationally agreed norms for preventing harm to patients, and robust accountability mechanisms. AI lacks these, Mittelstadt noted. Specific case studies and worked examples would be much more helpful to prevent ethics guidance becoming little more than window-dressing….(More)”.