We Need an FDA For Algorithms

Interview with Hannah Fry on the promise and danger of an AI world by Michael Segal:”…Why do we need an FDA for algorithms?

It used to be the case that you could just put any old colored liquid in a glass bottle and sell it as medicine and make an absolute fortune. And then not worry about whether or not it’s poisonous. We stopped that from happening because, well, for starters it’s kind of morally repugnant. But also, it harms people. We’re in that position right now with data and algorithms. You can harvest any data that you want, on anybody. You can infer any data that you like, and you can use it to manipulate them in any way that you choose. And you can roll out an algorithm that genuinely makes massive differences to people’s lives, both good and bad, without any checks and balances. To me that seems completely bonkers. So I think we need something like the FDA for algorithms. A regulatory body that can protect the intellectual property of algorithms, but at the same time ensure that the benefits to society outweigh the harms.

Why is the regulation of medicine an appropriate comparison?

If you swallow a bottle of colored liquid and then you keel over the next day, then you know for sure it was poisonous. But there are much more subtle things in pharmaceuticals that require expert analysis to be able to weigh up the benefits and the harms. To study the chemical profile of these drugs that are being sold and make sure that they actually are doing what they say they’re doing. With algorithms it’s the same thing. You can’t expect the average person in the street to study Bayesian inference or be totally well read in random forests, and have the kind of computing prowess to look up a code and analyze whether it’s doing something fairly. That’s not realistic. Simultaneously, you can’t have some code of conduct that every data science person signs up to, and agrees that they won’t tread over some lines. It has to be a government, really, that does this. It has to be government that analyzes this stuff on our behalf and makes sure that it is doing what it says it does, and in a way that doesn’t end up harming people.

How did you come to write a book about algorithms?

Back in 2011 in London, we had these really bad riots in London. I’d been working on a project with the Metropolitan Police, trying mathematically to look at how these riots had spread and to use algorithms to ask how could the police have done better. I went to go and give a talk in Berlin about this paper we’d published about our work, and they completely tore me apart. They were asking questions like, “Hang on a second, you’re creating this algorithm that has the potential to be used to suppress peaceful demonstrations in the future. How can you morally justify the work that you’re doing?” I’m kind of ashamed to say that it just hadn’t occurred to me at that point in time. Ever since, I have really thought a lot about the point that they made. And started to notice around me that other researchers in the area weren’t necessarily treating the data that they were working with, and the algorithms that they were creating, with the ethical concern they really warranted. We have this imbalance where the people who are making algorithms aren’t talking to the people who are using them. And the people who are using them aren’t talking to the people who are having decisions made about their lives by them. I wanted to write something that united those three groups….(More)”.