Illustrative image for Award Winning Essay Technology Can t Fix Algorithmic Injustice

Hastings Center News

Award-Winning Essay: Technology Can’t Fix Algorithmic Injustice

The Hastings Center is pleased to announce the winner of the 2020 David Roscoe Award for an Early-Career Essay on Science, Ethics, and Society.

“Technology Can’t Fix Algorithmic Injustice,” by Annette Zimmermann, Elena Di Rosa, and Hochan Kim, published in Boston Review, explores biases and other ethical questions posed by the algorithms used in artificial intelligence systems and calls for “greater democratic oversight of AI not just from developers and designers, but from all members of society.”

While much of the recent public debate about artificial intelligence centers on “apocalyptic visions of the future” in which autonomous machines take over the human race, the essay argues that focusing exclusively on these concerns “distracts from the ethical questions that AI is raising here and now.”

“Algorithmic decision making and decision support systems are currently being deployed in many high-stakes domains, from criminal justice, law enforcement, and employment decisions to credit scoring, school assignment mechanisms, health care, and public benefits eligibility assessments,” the authors write.

The algorithms used in AI are biased because they are built with data that itself is biased by structural injustice.

“For a concrete example, consider the machine learning systems used in predictive policing, whereby historical crime rate data is fed into algorithms in order to predict future geographic distributions of crime,” the authors write. “This is not a hypothetical scenario: predictive policing algorithms are fed historical crime rate data that we know is biased. We know that marginalized communities—in particular black, indigenous, and Latinx communities—have been overpoliced.”

The essay argues that algorithmic injustice is not only a technical problem, but also a moral and political one, and that addressing it requires deliberation by all of us as democratic citizens. “Responsibility cannot simply be offloaded and outsourced to tech developers and private corporations,” the authors write.

Zimmermann is a lecturer in the philosophy department at the University of York in the U.K. and a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Di Rosa is a PhD student in philosophy at Princeton University. Kim is PhD student in political theory at Princeton.

Launched last year, the David Roscoe essay award recognizes an essay on the social and ethical implications of advances in science and technology written in a style that is accessible and engaging to a general audience. Public engagement through writing has been a central commitment of The Hastings Center throughout its history. The award includes a cash prize of $2,000 divided among the authors.

The award is named in honor of a recent past chair of The Hastings Center’s board and current head of the advisory council. The award was presented to Zimmermann, Di Rosa, and Kim at the virtual annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities on October 15.

Photo (l. to r.): Elena Di Rosa, Annette Zimmerman, and Hochan Kim