Craig Watkins- Designing AI for Racial Equity: Translating Ethics into Practice

Craig Watkins- Designing AI for Racial Equity: Translating Ethics into Practice

1 November 2021 | 4-5pm | MIT E18-304

Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) Distinguished Seminar Series

Craig Watkins


Among the principles for ethical and responsible AI none is more prominent than the “fairness and non-discrimination” principle, that is, the idea that data-based systems like AI/ML should avoid unjust impacts on people, especially those from historically marginalized populations. But even as this principle is gaining greater academic, industry, and public attention a core challenge persists: how do we operationalize these ideas in the design, development, and deployment of AI/ML? More specifically, how do we build models, systems, and practices that realize the goals of this principle in tangible ways?

In this talk, I address this question through a racial equity framework. That is, a framework that emphasizes the need to design and deploy these systems in ways that intentionally seek to eliminate the impacts of structural racism. The talk frames this call to action as both a technical and social challenge. As a result, it requires dynamic approaches and forms of expertise. From a technical perspective this involves, among other things, thinking strategically about datasets, data governance, and modeling. From a social perspective this involves, for example, developing a domain specific understanding of structural racism and engaging diverse stakeholders. In the talk, I will also discuss how the Good Systems grand challenge at the University of Texas is partnering with the city of Austin and other entities to better understand how to deploy data-based systems to advance racial equity in key life domains such as policing and health.

About the speaker

S. Craig Watkins is the Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the Founding Director of the Institute for Media Innovation​. His research focuses on the impacts of media and data-based systems on human behavior, with a specific concentration on issues related to systemic racism. He is the author of six books and several articles and book chapters examining the intersections between race, technology, and society. His research also considers how diverse communities seek to adopt and deploy technology in innovative ways that address data literacy, civic life, and health. This work has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation.

Currently, Watkins is leading a team that will address the issue of artificial intelligence and systemic racism in a new six-year program funded by the Office of Vice President for Research at the University of Texas at Austin. The team will focus on the broad and fundamental scientific challenge of achieving racially equitable AI, while being grounded in testing the applicability of specific methods, models, processes, and procedures in critical domains like health and transportation. A key component of the research is to examine how various stakeholders—developers of technologies, the private and public sectors, and citizens—can work to create a more equitable AI future.


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This seminar is organized by the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS).