Causes of (and Remedies for) Bias in AI

James Manyika, Jake Silberg, and Brittany Presten writing for the Harvard Business Review:

AI can help identify and reduce the impact of human biases, but it can also make the problem worse by baking in and deploying biases at scale in sensitive application areas.

The phrase “artificial intelligence” is leading us astray. For some folks, it’s become a type of magical incantation that promises to solve all sorts of problems. Much of what goes by AI today isn’t magic — or intelligence, really; it’s dynamic applied statistics. As such, “AI” is highly subject to the data being analyzed and the structure of that data. Garbage in, garbage out.

It’s important for business leaders to learn about how AI works. The HBR post offers a good summary of the issues and practical recommendations for leaders looking to make better decisions when implementing AI-informed systems — which we all should be:

Bias is all of our responsibility. It hurts those discriminated against, of course, and it also hurts everyone by reducing people’s ability to participate in the economy and society. It reduces the potential of AI for business and society by encouraging mistrust and producing distorted results. Business and organizational leaders need to ensure that the AI systems they use improve on human decision-making, and they have a responsibility to encourage progress on research and standards that will reduce bias in AI.

What Do We Do About the Biases in AI?

Tending Your Industry’s Ecosystem

Organizations never exist on their own; they’re part of an ecosystem, a web of relationships that make it possible for things to get done. Your decisions affect the ecosystem, and the decisions of others affect you.

This has always been so, of course, but the internet has made ecosystems more visible and susceptible to disruption. Transacting has become easier and faster. Changes are often immediate, have more impact, and lead to greater network effects. The balance of power shifts: organizations can leverage connections to go straight to consumers. Alternatively, intermediaries can create new roles for themselves, becoming purveyors of information as much as goods.

There are great opportunities for organizations that can affect system dynamics. But there are also risks — to themselves and to the ecosystem. For example, in a recent interview with economist Tyler Cowen, music critic Ted Gioia talked about the impact internet streaming has had on the music industry:

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Worth Your Attention

Hiding Incompatible Apps in the Microsoft Store

Earlier this week, I wrote about the strategic importance of information architecture to a product launch. As an example, I discussed the recently-released Microsoft Surface Pro X, which isn’t compatible with all Windows apps. Alas, when the product launched, Microsoft’s app store didn’t make it clear to users of the Pro X what apps wouldn’t run on their device. Per a report on The Verge, Microsoft has now updated its store so these users don’t see incompatible apps.

Again, a caveat: I don’t own a Surface Pro X or use Windows, so I haven’t tested any of this. Still, I expect that hiding apps that aren’t compatible with the user’s device is an improvement. Given how soon after launch Microsoft rolled out this change, most customers probably won’t experience the frustration I highlighted in my earlier post.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro X now steers you away from buying apps that don’t work

The Perfect Framing for an Information Architecture Challenge

Back in August, I highlighted an upcoming Twitter feature that allows users to follow topics in their timeline, much like they follow accounts today. The release of the feature is imminent, and Casey Newton has posted an update in The Verge. It opens with this scenario:

Recently, a friend told me he wanted to spend more time using Twitter, but he didn’t quite know how. His primary interest is comedy, he told me, and he hoped to find a way to see comedians’ best jokes on Twitter as they were posted. But when he followed comedians, he mostly saw a lot of self-promotion — tour dates, late-night appearances, and that sort of thing. No matter your personal interests, there are countless good and relevant tweets on Twitter. But where are they?

A person realizes they have an information need. The system he or she is using isn’t meeting that need. What to do?

It’s the perfect framing for an information architecture challenge.

Twitter Topics: follow subjects automatically in the timeline

TAOI: Incompatible Apps in the Microsoft Store

The architecture of information:

A month ago, Microsoft introduced several new computers to its Surface line. While some of the new devices were incremental advances, one of them — the Surface Pro X — is a modern reinterpretation of the product line. It’s physically sleeker than previous Surface tablets. It features a new stylus that can be stored in the tablet’s keyboard. And, most importantly, it uses a new ARM processor architecture, like the one used by smartphones.

This last point is worth noting. One of the advantages of using Windows tablets over iPads is that the latter lack the breadth of software available for Windows. But in many cases, software “for Windows” really means “for Windows on traditional Intel processors.” Some of the apps that run “on Windows” are incompatible with the new ARM processors in the Surface Pro X tablets, even though they, too, run Windows. In other words, it’s complicated.

In his review of the device for The Verge, Dieter Bohn calls out app compatibility issues as one of the downsides of the new device. The review is worth reading for details into the complexities of this processor transition. The challenges are nuanced: some apps will run slowly, others won’t run at all. One issue stood out to me:
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Binge Faster

According to a report on The Verge, Netflix is testing a way for its users to watch shows and movies at double-speed. Some people associated with the movie industry are pushing back. The report includes a quote from director Brad Bird that captures the sentiment:

Why support and finance filmmakers visions on one hand and then work to destroy the presentation of those films on the other?

“Destroy the presentation” sounds like an exaggeration. But in cinema, timing is critical. Directors, actors, and editors obsess over getting the pacing of scenes and dialog just right. Giving users the ability to speed everything up can ruin the intended effect. So why would Netflix do this? Per the report, “it’s a heavily requested feature from subscribers.”

I’m not surprised. In our era of binge-watching (driven in part by Netflix) and shortening attention spans, speeding up shows would allow users to watch more. I can relate to the sentiment. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and often I’ll do so at 2x or sometimes even 2.5x the regular speed. As a result, I can read more in less time.

Not all books work well when sped up; some I can only listen to at 1x. Mostly, the “slow” ones are books I want to savor — either because the story is gripping, or I’m enjoying the narrator’s performance. Case in point: I’m currently listening to the Sherlock Holmes stories read by Stephen Fry. The audiobook is almost 63 hours long, and I’ve read all of it at 1x; anything else would ruin Mr. Fry’s terrific performance.

Books that work well when sped up are the ones I read “for work” instead of “for pleasure.” (In quotes because this isn’t a hard distinction for me.) The main challenge with these is taking notes whenever something interesting comes up. This is harder to do when listening fast. But in these cases, I’m looking for information, not performance. So faster speeds work for me.

Now, you could argue that people watch shows on Netflix (and other streaming services) mostly “for pleasure.” But why not leave it up to them to determine how they want to listen? It’s not like everyone would be forced to watch at higher speeds; it’s just a new choice.

Netflix wants to let people watch things at twice the speed, but Hollywood is pushing pack

Worth Your Attention

Changes to iOS 13’s Mail Toolbar

A perennial tweet by Jared Spool:

The default Mail application in iOS — perhaps one of the most popular apps in the world — is an unfortunate recent example. With the latest release of the app (in iOS 13,) Apple’s designers changed the options in the toolbar so that the Trash button is located where the Reply button has been in previous releases. Even though these buttons are different, app users have developed muscle memory over time; they’re used to tapping on that screen location to initiate a reply action without thinking about it. Only that now, instead of opening a draft reply, the message they’re working on disappears. The result? Frustrated users. John Gruber has a good overview of the issue and user reactions.

Few changes are as impactful as those you make to your system’s navigation elements. Toolbars and navigation bars are how users move around and do things in your app or website. Over time, people get used to where options are; changing their placement — even if done for good reasons — can lead to frustration. If you must change long-established navigation elements, test new versions extensively with users of varying degrees of experience. And if you don’t have good reasons to change your navigation elements, consider focusing on other aspects of your system instead.

The Curious Design of Mail’s Message Action Toolbar in iOS 13