AI Bill of Rights shows good intentions

The White House announced a Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights on Oct. 4. The MIT Technology Review wrote about it the same day (so did many other tech publishers). According to writer Melissa Heikkilä, “Critics say the plan lacks teeth and the US needs even tougher regulation around AI.”

An associated document, titled Examples of Automated Systems, is very useful. It doesn’t describe technologies so much as what technologies do — the actions they perform. Example: “Systems related to access to benefits or services or assignment of penalties, such as systems that support decision-makers who adjudicate benefits …, systems which similarly assist in the adjudication of administrative or criminal penalties …”

Five broad rights are described. Copied straight from the blueprint document, with a couple of commas and boldface added:

  1. “You should be protected from unsafe or ineffective systems.”
  2. “You should not face discrimination by algorithms, and systems should be used and designed in an equitable way.”
  3. “You should be protected from abusive data practices via built-in protections, and you should have agency over how data about you is used.”
  4. “You should know that an automated system is being used and understand how and why it contributes to outcomes that impact you.”
  5. “You should be able to opt out, where appropriate, and have access to a person who can quickly consider and remedy problems you encounter.”

I admire how plainspoken these statements are. I also feel a bit hopeless, reading them — these genies are well out of their bottles already, and I doubt any of these can ever be enforced to a meaningful degree.

Just take, for example, “You should know that an automated system is being used.” Companies such as Facebook will write this into their 200,000-word terms of service, to which you must agree before signing in, and use that as evidence that “you knew.” Did you know Facebook was deliberately steering you and your loved ones to toxic hate groups on the platform? No. Did you know your family photos were being used to train face-recognition systems? No. Is Facebook going to give you a big, easy-to-read warning about the next invasive or exploitative technology it deploys against you? Certainly not.

What about “You should be protected from abusive data practices”? For over 20 years, an algorithm ensured that Black Americans — specifically Black Americans — were recorded as having healthier kidneys than they actually had, which meant life-saving care for many of them was delayed or withheld. (The National Kidney Foundation finally addressed this in late 2021.) Note, that isn’t even AI per se — it’s just the way authorities manipulate data for the sake of convenience, efficiency, or profit.

One thing missing is the idea that you should be able to challenge the outcome that came from an algorithm. This might be assumed part of “understand how and why [an automated system] contributes to outcomes that impact you,” but I think it needs to be more explicit. If you are denied a bank loan, for example, you should be told which variable or variables caused the denial. Was it the house’s zip code, for example? Was it your income? What are your options to improve the outcome?

You should be able to demand a test — say, running a mortgage application that is identical to yours except for a few selected data points (which might be related to, for example, your race or ethnicity). If that fictitious application is approved, it shows that your denial was unfair.

Enforcement of the five points in the blueprint is bound to be difficult, as can be seen from these few examples.


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