Changing algorithms is easier than changing people: software on computers can be updated; the “wetware” in our brains has so far proven much less pliable.

None of this is meant to diminish the pitfalls and care needed in fixing algorithmic bias. But compared with the intransigence of human bias, it does look a great deal simpler.

Discrimination by algorithm can be more readily discovered and more easily fixed. In a 2018 paper with Cass Sunstein, Jon Kleinberg and Jens Ludwig, I took a cautiously optimistic perspective and argued that with proper regulation, algorithms can help to reduce discrimination.

But the key phrase here is “proper regulation,” which we do not currently have.

We must ensure all the necessary inputs to the algorithm, including the data used to test and create it, are carefully stored. Something quite similar is already required in financial markets, where copious records are preserved and reported, while preserving the commercial secrecy of the firms involved. We will need a well-funded regulatory agency with highly trained auditors to process this data.

Once proper regulation is in place, better algorithms can help to ensure equitable treatment in our society, though they won’t resolve the deep, structural bias that continues to plague the United States. Fixing the biases of society is no easier than fixing the biases of people.

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