Can Software Be Taught To Be Fair?

SO YOU THINK COMPUTER software is value-neutral? Not according to William A. Wallace, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor of decision sciences and author of the 1994 book Ethics in Modeling. Wallace says one major U.S. bank had to fix its loan-evaluation software after discovering that it tended to reject some applications by putting too much weight on old age.

Many users, says Wallace, are not aware that computer models are often subtly shaped by the ethical judgments and assumptions of the programmers who created the software. He and RPI colleague Deborah G. Johnson, a philosophy professor, hope to prepare training materials, including a video, to sensitize people to the hidden ethics of "expert systems." There are legal issues as well. Wallace says it's unclear who's liable if something goes wrong with a computer model--its creator or the user.

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