Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Ethical Challenge of "Passive Predation" in Data Science: Can Data Science Provide the Solution, and Not Just the Problem?

I recently ran across an intriguing blog post from Michael Malek, on "Predatory Data Science". Malek notes that data science methods, especially "black box" machine learning, can unintentionally create what he calls "passive predation"—that is, taking advantage of some vulnerable group despite having no intention to do so. He uses the example of a machine learning model, created for a gun manufacturer, that ends up targeting marketing efforts at the suicidal, by identifying keywords associated with depression. The data scientist using the tool in question wouldn't have intended that result, and probably would never even be aware of it, because the group of suicidal depressives would be buried amidst thousands of other micro-segments identified by the same application.

Malek perhaps overdraws his point in the middle part of the post—a historical account of the dehumanizing effects of technology that's reminiscent of Marx's condemnation of working for money in "The Alienation of Labor"—but his main argument is quite sound, and not a little scary.

I wonder, though, if data science itself could provide a solution to this problem. I hereby announce a very unofficial contest, with prizes that will prove trivial at best (I might take a winner out to lunch, or talk about his or her idea at a Data Comunity DC meetup). Pretty much any method of accomplishing this goal, technical or non-technical, is fair game. Any takers?

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