What Is a Proxy and Why Is It a Problem?

  • Speaker
  • Solon Barocas, Ph.D.Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Information Science, Cornell University
    Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research
Date & Time


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Concerns with so-called ‘proxies’ have become ubiquitous in recent debates about algorithmic fairness. Yet it is far from clear what makes something a proxy and why it poses a problem. In this talk, Solon Barocas will differentiate between two different notions of proxies: One concerned with the choice of prediction target and the other concerned with the choice of input features. In the first case, the concern is that a chosen target can be a systematically biased measure — that is, a poor proxy — for the true outcome of interest and that even accurately predicting the target can be unfair. In the second case, the concern seems to be that even when a legally proscribed feature is not provided directly as an input into a machine learning model, discrimination on that basis may persist because non-proscribed features are correlated with — that is, serve as a proxy for — the proscribed feature. After disentangling these two different notions, Barocas will show that it can be surprisingly difficult, in both cases, to pin down whether something is a proxy and whether that should be cause for concern.

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About the Speaker

Barocas is a principal researcher in the New York City lab of Microsoft Research and an adjunct assistant professor in the department of information science at Cornell University. His research explores ethical and policy issues in artificial intelligence, particularly fairness in machine learning, methods for bringing accountability to automated decision-making, and the privacy implications of inference. He co-founded the ACM conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAccT).

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