Algorithm Workshop, University of Strathclyde. February 2017

What are algorithms and how are they designed? Why are they used in commercial practice and what kinds of benefits can they bring? What are the potential harmful impacts of using algorithms and how can they be prevented?

On Wednesday 15th February 2017 some UnBias consortium members had the pleasure of attending an Algorithm Workshop hosted by the Law School, University of Strathclyde. During the workshop, we had the opportunity to consider, discuss and begin to address key issues and concerns surrounding the contemporary prevalence of algorithms. The workshop was also attended by students from the host University and an interdisciplinary group of experts from areas including Law, Computer Science and the Social Sciences. This mix of expertise made for a really great afternoon of talks and discussions surrounding the design, development and use of algorithms through various disciplinary perspectives.

After some networking and tea and biscuits on arrival, the attendees were well-fuelled for a very insightful and thought-provoking workshop. There were six talks through the afternoon, given by experts from different institutions. Michael Veale from UCL started the workshop with a clear insight into the design of algorithms and the revelation of some of the ethical concerns (such as transparency) surrounding their use and governance. Lilian Edwards spoke from a legal perspective, giving real life case studies where the use of algorithms has provoked controversy- such as their use for targeted advertising to particular ethnic communities. Through her talk she emphasised how existing legislation may not be able to deal appropriately with complex issues surrounding algorithm design and use and highlighted the difficulties that the legal community faces in addressing such controversies. Each talk was followed by the opportunity for participants to ask questions with the day culminating in a panel session where prominent themes were discussed.

The day raised many questions and challenges in relation to the governance of algorithms – beginning with their design and extending to their implementation and commercial use. The complexity of the societal, ethical and technical challenges that emerge through the increasing use and sophistication of algorithms requires a unified and interdisciplinary approach. What is very clear is that different disciplines coming together through workshops and events such as this provides a very beneficial way to address and begin to overcome some of the challenges that algorithms present to us.

UnBias was asked to contribute to the workshop by providing an overview of the technical perspective on the ‘black box’ problem of algorithms.

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