Amazon joins NSF in funding research exploring fairness in AI amidst public outcry over big tech #ethicswashing

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Behind the heels of Stanford’s HCAI Institute ( which, mind you, received public backlash for non-representative faculty makeup). Amazon is collaborating with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop systems based on fairness in AI. The company will be investing $10M each in artificial intelligence research grants over a three-year period.

The official announcement was made by Prem Natarajan, VP of natural understanding in the Alexa AI group, who wrote in a blog postWith the increasing use of AI in everyday life, fairness in artificial intelligence is a topic of increasing importance across academia, government, and industry. Here at Amazon, the fairness of the machine learning systems we build to support our businesses is critical to establishing and maintaining our customers’ trust.

Per the blog post, Amazon will be collaborating with NSF to build trustworthy AI systems to address modern challenges. They will explore topics of transparency, explainability, accountability, potential adverse biases and effects, mitigation strategies, validation of fairness, and considerations of inclusivity.

Proposals will be accepted from March 26 until May 10, to result in new open source tools, publicly available data sets, and publications. The two organizations plan to continue the program with calls for additional proposals in 2020 and 2021. There will be 6 to 9 awards of type Standard Grant or Continuing Grant. The award size will be $750,000 – up to a maximum of $1,250,000 for periods of up to 3 years. The anticipated funding amount is $7,600,000.


We are excited to announce this new collaboration with Amazon to fund research focused on fairness in AI,” said Jim Kurose, NSF’s head for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “This program will support research related to the development and implementation of trustworthy AI systems that incorporate transparency, fairness, and accountability into the design from the beginning.

The insidious nexus of private funding in public research: What does Amazon gain from collab with NSF?

Amazon’s foray into fairness system looks more of a publicity stunt than eliminating AI bias.

For starters, Amazon said that they will not be making the award determinations for this project. NSF would solely be awarding in accordance with its merit review process. However, Amazon said that Amazon researchers may be involved with the projects as an advisor only at the request of an awardee, or of NSF with the awardee’s consent. As advisors, Amazon may host student interns who wish to gain further industry experience, which seems a bit dicey.

Amazon will also not participate in the review process or receive proposal information. NSF will only be sharing with Amazon summary-level information that is necessary to evaluate the program, specifically the number of proposal submissions, number of submitting organizations, and numbers rated across various review categories. There was also the question of who exactly is funding since VII.B section of the proposal states: “Individual awards selected for joint funding by NSF and Amazon will be   funded through separate NSF and Amazon funding instruments.”

Nic Weber, the author of the above tweets and Assistant Professor at UW iSchool, also raises another important question: “Why does Amazon get to put its logo on a national solicitation (for a paltry $7.6 million dollars in basic research) when it profits in the multi-billions off of AI that is demonstrably unfair and harmful.”

Twitter was abundant with tweets from those in working tech questioning Amazon’s collaboration.

Amazon has already been under the fire due to its controversial decisions in the recent past. In June last year, when the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) began separating migrant children from their parents, Amazon came under fire as one of the tech companies that aided ICE with the software required to do so.

Amazon has also faced constant criticisms since the news came that Amazon had sold its facial recognition product Rekognition to a number of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. in the first half of 2018. Amazon is also under backlash after a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January, found Amazon Rekognition incapable of reliably determining the sex of female and darker-skinned faces in certain scenarios. Amazon is yet to fix this AI-bias anomaly, and yet it has now started a new collaboration with NSF that ironically focusses on building bias-free AI systems. Amazon’s Ring (a smart doorbell company) also came under public scrutiny in January, after it gave access to its employees to watch live footage from cameras of the customers.

In other news, yesterday, Google also formed an external AI advisory council to help advance the responsible development of AI. More details here.

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Content Marketing Editor at Packt Hub. I blog about new and upcoming tech trends ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development.