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    Driving toward data justice

    As a person with a mixed-race background who has lived in four different cities, Amelia Dogan describes her early life as “growing up in a lot of in-betweens.” Now an MIT senior, she continues to link different perspectives together, working at the intersection of urban planning, computer science, and social justice.

    Dogan was born in Canada but spent her high school years in Philadelphia, where she developed a strong affinity for the city.  

    “I love Philadelphia to death,” says Dogan. “It’s my favorite place in the world. The energy in the city is amazing — I’m so sad I wasn’t there for the Super Bowl this year — but it is a city with really big disparities. That drives me to do the research that I do and shapes the things that I care about.”

    Dogan is double-majoring in urban science and planning with computer science and in American studies. She decided on the former after participating in the pre-orientation program offered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, which provides an introduction to both the department and the city of Boston. She followed that up with a UROP research project with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, putting together historical census data on housing and race to find patterns for use in community advocacy.

    After taking WGS.231 (Writing About Race), a course offered by the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies, her first year at MIT, Dogan realized there was a lot of crosstalk between urban planning, computer science, and the social sciences.

    “There’s a lot of critical social theory that I want to have background in to make me a better planner or a better computer scientist,” says Dogan. “There’s also a lot of issues around fairness and participation in computer science, and a lot of computer scientists are trying to reinvent the wheel when there’s already really good, critical social science research and theory behind this.”

    Data science and feminism

    Dogan’s first year at MIT was interrupted by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there was a silver lining. An influx of funding to keep students engaged while attending school virtually enabled her to join the Data + Feminism Lab to work on a case study examining three places in Philadelphia with historical names that were renamed after activist efforts.

    In her first year at MIT, Dogan worked several UROPs to hone her own skills and find the best research fit. Besides the West Philadelphia Land Project, she worked on two projects within the MIT Sloan School of Management. The first involved searching for connections between entrepreneurship and immigration among Fortune 500 founders. The second involved interviewing warehouse workers and writing a report on their quality of life.

    Dogan has now spent three years in the Data + Feminism Lab under Associate Professor Catherine D’Ignazio, where she is particularly interested in how technology can be used by marginalized communities to invert historical power imbalances. A key concept in the lab’s work is that of counterdata, which are produced by civil society groups or individuals in order to counter missing data or to challenge existing official data.

    Most recently, she completed a SuperUROP project investigating how femicide data activist organizations use social media. She analyzed 600 social media posts by organizations across the U.S. and Canada. The work built off the lab’s greater body of work with these groups, which Dogan has contributed to by annotating news articles for machine-learning models.

    “Catherine works a lot at the intersection of data issues and feminism. It just seemed like the right fit for me,” says Dogan. “She’s my academic advisor, she’s my research advisor, and is also a really good mentor.”

    Advocating for the student experience

    Outside of the classroom, Dogan is a strong advocate for improving the student experience, particularly when it intersects with identity. An executive board member of the Asian American Initiative (AAI), she also sits on the student advisory council for the Office of Minority Education.

    “Doing that institutional advocacy has been important to me, because it’s for things that I expected coming into college and had not come in prepared to fight for,” says Dogan. As a high schooler, she participated in programs run by the University of Pennsylvania’s Pan-Asian American Community House and was surprised to find that MIT did not have an equivalent organization.

    “Building community based upon identity is something that I’ve been really passionate about,” says Dogan. “For the past two years, I’ve been working with AAI on a list of recommendations for MIT. I’ve talked to alums from the ’90s who were a part of an Asian American caucus who were asking for the same things.”

    She also holds a leadership role with MIXED @ MIT, a student group focused on creating space for mixed-heritage students to explore and discuss their identities.

    Following graduation, Dogan plans to pursue a PhD in information science at the University of Washington. Her breadth of skills has given her a range of programs to choose from. No matter where she goes next, Dogan wants to pursue a career where she can continue to make a tangible impact.

    “I would love to be doing community-engaged research around data justice, using citizen science and counterdata for policy and social change,” she says. More

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    Simulating discrimination in virtual reality

    Have you ever been advised to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?” Considering another person’s perspective can be a challenging endeavor — but recognizing our errors and biases is key to building understanding across communities. By challenging our preconceptions, we confront prejudice, such as racism and xenophobia, and potentially develop a more inclusive perspective about others.

    To assist with perspective-taking, MIT researchers have developed “On the Plane,” a virtual reality role-playing game (VR RPG) that simulates discrimination. In this case, the game portrays xenophobia directed against a Malaysian America woman, but the approach can be generalized. Situated on an airplane, players can take on the role of characters from different backgrounds, engaging in dialogue with others while making in-game choices to a series of prompts. In turn, players’ decisions control the outcome of a tense conversation between the characters about cultural differences.

    As a VR RPG, “On the Plane” encourages players to take on new roles that may be outside of their personal experiences in the first person, allowing them to confront in-group/out-group bias by incorporating new perspectives into their understanding of different cultures. Players engage with three characters: Sarah, a first-generation Muslim American of Malaysian ancestry who wears a hijab; Marianne, a white woman from the Midwest with little exposure to other cultures and customs; or a flight attendant. Sarah represents the out group, Marianne is a member of the in group, and the flight staffer is a bystander witnessing an exchange between the two passengers.“This project is part of our efforts to harness the power of virtual reality and artificial intelligence to address social ills, such as discrimination and xenophobia,” says Caglar Yildirim, an MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) research scientist who is a co-author and co-game designer on the project. “Through the exchange between the two passengers, players experience how one passenger’s xenophobia manifests itself and how it affects the other passenger. The simulation engages players in critical reflection and seeks to foster empathy for the passenger who was ‘othered’ due to her outfit being not so ‘prototypical’ of what an American should look like.”

    Yildirim worked alongside the project’s principal investigator, D. Fox Harrell, MIT professor of digital media and AI at CSAIL, the Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS), and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and founding director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. “It is not possible for a simulation to give someone the life experiences of another person, but while you cannot ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ in that sense, a system like this can help people recognize and understand the social patterns at work when it comes to issue like bias,” says Harrell, who is also co-author and designer on this project. “An engaging, immersive, interactive narrative can also impact people emotionally, opening the door for users’ perspectives to be transformed and broadened.” This simulation also utilizes an interactive narrative engine that creates several options for responses to in-game interactions based on a model of how people are categorized socially. The tool grants players a chance to alter their standing in the simulation through their reply choices to each prompt, affecting their affinity toward the other two characters. For example, if you play as the flight attendant, you can react to Marianne’s xenophobic expressions and attitudes toward Sarah, changing your affinities. The engine will then provide you with a different set of narrative events based on your changes in standing with others.

    To animate each avatar, “On the Plane” incorporates artificial intelligence knowledge representation techniques controlled by probabilistic finite state machines, a tool commonly used in machine learning systems for pattern recognition. With the help of these machines, characters’ body language and gestures are customizable: if you play as Marianne, the game will customize her mannerisms toward Sarah based on user inputs, impacting how comfortable she appears in front of a member of a perceived out group. Similarly, players can do the same from Sarah or the flight attendant’s point of view.In a 2018 paper based on work done in a collaboration between MIT CSAIL and the Qatar Computing Research Institute, Harrell and co-author Sercan Şengün advocated for virtual system designers to be more inclusive of Middle Eastern identities and customs. They claimed that if designers allowed users to customize virtual avatars more representative of their background, it might empower players to engage in a more supportive experience. Four years later, “On the Plane” accomplishes a similar goal, incorporating a Muslim’s perspective into an immersive environment.

    “Many virtual identity systems, such as avatars, accounts, profiles, and player characters, are not designed to serve the needs of people across diverse cultures. We have used statistical and AI methods in conjunction with qualitative approaches to learn where the gaps are,” they note. “Our project helps engender perspective transformation so that people will treat each other with respect and enhanced understanding across diverse cultural avatar representations.”

    Harrell and Yildirim’s work is part of the MIT IDSS’s Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR). Harrell is on the initiative’s steering committee and is the leader of the newly forming Antiracism, Games, and Immersive Media vertical, who study behavior, cognition, social phenomena, and computational systems related to race and racism in video games and immersive experiences.

    The researchers’ latest project is part of the ICSR’s broader goal to launch and coordinate cross-disciplinary research that addresses racially discriminatory processes across American institutions. Using big data, members of the research initiative develop and employ computing tools that drive racial equity. Yildirim and Harrell accomplish this goal by depicting a frequent, problematic scenario that illustrates how bias creeps into our everyday lives.“In a post-9/11 world, Muslims often experience ethnic profiling in American airports. ‘On the Plane’ builds off of that type of in-group favoritism, a well-established finding in psychology,” says MIT Professor Fotini Christia, director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) and associate director or IDSS. “This game also takes a novel approach to analyzing hardwired bias by utilizing VR instead of field experiments to simulate prejudice. Excitingly, this research demonstrates that VR can be used as a tool to help us better measure bias, combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination.”“On the Plane” was developed on the Unity game engine using the XR Interaction Toolkit and Harrell’s Chimeria platform for authoring interactive narratives that involve social categorization. The game will be deployed for research studies later this year on both desktop computers and the standalone, wireless Meta Quest headsets. A paper on the work was presented in December at the 2022 IEEE International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. More

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    Empowering Cambridge youth through data activism

    For over 40 years, the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program (MSYEP, or the Mayor’s Program) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been providing teenagers with their first work experience, but 2022 brought a new offering. Collaborating with MIT’s Personal Robots research group (PRG) and Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE) this summer, MSYEP created a STEAM-focused learning site at the Institute. Eleven students joined the program to learn coding and programming skills through the lens of “Data Activism.”

    MSYEP’s partnership with MIT provides an opportunity for Cambridge high schoolers to gain exposure to more pathways for their future careers and education. The Mayor’s Program aims to respect students’ time and show the value of their work, so participants are compensated with an hourly wage as they learn workforce skills at MSYEP worksites. In conjunction with two ongoing research studies at MIT, PRG and RAISE developed the six-week Data Activism curriculum to equip students with critical-thinking skills so they feel prepared to utilize data science to challenge social injustice and empower their community.

    Rohan Kundargi, K-12 Community Outreach Administrator for MIT Office of Government and Community Relations (OGCR), says, “I see this as a model for a new type of partnership between MIT and Cambridge MSYEP. Specifically, an MIT research project that involves students from Cambridge getting paid to learn, research, and develop their own skills!”

    Cross-Cambridge collaboration

    Cambridge’s Office of Workforce Development initially contacted MIT OGCR about hosting a potential MSYEP worksite that taught Cambridge teens how to code. When Kundargi reached out to MIT pK-12 collaborators, MIT PRG’s graduate research assistant Raechel Walker proposed the Data Activism curriculum. Walker defines “data activism” as utilizing data, computing, and art to analyze how power operates in the world, challenge power, and empathize with people who are oppressed.

    Walker says, “I wanted students to feel empowered to incorporate their own expertise, talents, and interests into every activity. In order for students to fully embrace their academic abilities, they must remain comfortable with bringing their full selves into data activism.”

    As Kundargi and Walker recruited students for the Data Activism learning site, they wanted to make sure the cohort of students — the majority of whom are individuals of color — felt represented at MIT and felt they had the agency for their voice to be heard. “The pioneers in this field are people who look like them,” Walker says, speaking of well-known data activists Timnit Gebru, Rediet Abebe, and Joy Buolamwini.

    When the program began this summer, some of the students were not aware of the ways data science and artificial intelligence exacerbate systemic oppression in society, or some of the tools currently being used to mitigate those societal harms. As a result, Walker says, the students wanted to learn more about discriminatory design in every aspect of life. They were also interested in creating responsible machine learning algorithms and AI fairness metrics.

    A different side of STEAM

    The development and execution of the Data Activism curriculum contributed to Walker’s and postdoc Xiaoxue Du’s respective research at PRG. Walker is studying AI education, specifically creating and teaching data activism curricula for minoritized communities. Du’s research explores processes, assessments, and curriculum design that prepares educators to use, adapt, and integrate AI literacy curricula. Additionally, her research targets how to leverage more opportunities for students with diverse learning needs.

    The Data Activism curriculum utilizes a “libertatory computing” framework, a term Walker coined in her position paper with Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT RAISE, dean for digital learning, and head of PRG, and Eman Sherif, a then-undergraduate researcher from University of California at San Diego, titled “Liberty Computing for African American Students.” This framework ensures that students, especially minoritized students, acquire a sound racial identity, critical consciousness, collective obligation, liberation centered academic/achievement identity, as well as the activism skills to use computing to transform a multi-layered system of barriers in which racism persists. Walker says, “We encouraged students to demonstrate competency in every pillar because all of the pillars are interconnected and build upon each other.”

    Walker developed a series of interactive coding and project-based activities that focused on understanding systemic racism, utilizing data science to analyze systemic oppression, data drawing, responsible machine learning, how racism can be embedded into AI, and different AI fairness metrics.

    This was the students’ first time learning how to create data visualizations using the programming language Python and the data analysis tool Pandas. In one project meant to examine how different systems of oppression can affect different aspects of students’ own identities, students created datasets with data from their respective intersectional identities. Another activity highlighted African American achievements, where students analyzed two datasets about African American scientists, activists, artists, scholars, and athletes. Using the data visualizations, students then created zines about the African Americans who inspired them.

    RAISE hired Olivia Dias, Sophia Brady, Lina Henriquez, and Zeynep Yalcin through the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) and PRG hired freelancer Matt Taylor to work with Walker on developing the curriculum and designing interdisciplinary experience projects. Walker and the four undergraduate researchers constructed an intersectional data analysis activity about different examples of systemic oppression. PRG also hired three high school students to test activities and offer insights about making the curriculum engaging for program participants. Throughout the program, the Data Activism team taught students in small groups, continually asked students how to improve each activity, and structured each lesson based on the students’ interests. Walker says Dias, Brady, Henriquez, and Yalcin were invaluable to cultivating a supportive classroom environment and helping students complete their projects.

    Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Nina works on her rubber block stamp that depicts the importance of representation in media and greater representation in the tech industry.

    Photo: Katherine Ouellette

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    Student Nina says, “It’s opened my eyes to a different side of STEM. I didn’t know what ‘data’ meant before this program, or how intersectionality can affect AI and data.” Before MSYEP, Nina took Intro to Computer Science and AP Computer Science, but she has been coding since Girls Who Code first sparked her interest in middle school. “The community was really nice. I could talk with other girls. I saw there needs to be more women in STEM, especially in coding.” Now she’s interested in applying to colleges with strong computer science programs so she can pursue a coding-related career.

    From MSYEP to the mayor’s office

    Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui visited the Data Activism learning site on Aug. 9, accompanied by Breazeal. A graduate of MSYEP herself, Siddiqui says, “Through hands-on learning through computer programming, Cambridge high school students have the unique opportunity to see themselves as data scientists. Students were able learn ways to combat discrimination that occurs through artificial intelligence.” In an Instagram post, Siddiqui also said, “I had a blast visiting the students and learning about their projects.”

    Students worked on an activity that asked them to envision how data science might be used to support marginalized communities. They transformed their answers into block-printed T-shirt designs, carving pictures of their hopes into rubber block stamps. Some students focused on the importance of data privacy, like Jacob T., who drew a birdcage to represent data stored and locked away by third party apps. He says, “I want to open that cage and restore my data to myself and see what can be done with it.”

    The subject of Cambridge Community Charter School student Jacob T.’s project was the importance of data privacy. For his T-shirt design, he drew a birdcage to represent data stored and locked away by third party apps. (From right to left:) Breazeal, Jacob T. Kiki, Raechel Walker, and Zeynep Yalcin.

    Photo: Katherine Ouellette

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    Many students wanted to see more representation in both the media they consume and across various professional fields. Nina talked about the importance of representation in media and how that could contribute to greater representation in the tech industry, while Kiki talked about encouraging more women to pursue STEM fields. Jesmin said, “I wanted to show that data science is accessible to everyone, no matter their origin or language you speak. I wrote ‘hello’ in Bangla, Arabic, and English, because I speak all three languages and they all resonate with me.”

    Student Jesmin (left) explains the concept of her T-shirt design to Mayor Siddiqui. She wants data science to be accessible to everyone, no matter their origin or language, so she drew a globe and wrote ‘hello’ in the three languages she speaks: Bangla, Arabic, and English.

    Photo: Katherine Ouellette

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    “Overall, I hope the students continue to use their data activism skills to re-envision a society that supports marginalized groups,” says Walker. “Moreover, I hope they are empowered to become data scientists and understand how their race can be a positive part of their identity.” More

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    A technique to improve both fairness and accuracy in artificial intelligence

    For workers who use machine-learning models to help them make decisions, knowing when to trust a model’s predictions is not always an easy task, especially since these models are often so complex that their inner workings remain a mystery.

    Users sometimes employ a technique, known as selective regression, in which the model estimates its confidence level for each prediction and will reject predictions when its confidence is too low. Then a human can examine those cases, gather additional information, and make a decision about each one manually.

    But while selective regression has been shown to improve the overall performance of a model, researchers at MIT and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab have discovered that the technique can have the opposite effect for underrepresented groups of people in a dataset. As the model’s confidence increases with selective regression, its chance of making the right prediction also increases, but this does not always happen for all subgroups.

    For instance, a model suggesting loan approvals might make fewer errors on average, but it may actually make more wrong predictions for Black or female applicants. One reason this can occur is due to the fact that the model’s confidence measure is trained using overrepresented groups and may not be accurate for these underrepresented groups.

    Once they had identified this problem, the MIT researchers developed two algorithms that can remedy the issue. Using real-world datasets, they show that the algorithms reduce performance disparities that had affected marginalized subgroups.

    “Ultimately, this is about being more intelligent about which samples you hand off to a human to deal with. Rather than just minimizing some broad error rate for the model, we want to make sure the error rate across groups is taken into account in a smart way,” says senior MIT author Greg Wornell, the Sumitomo Professor in Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) who leads the Signals, Information, and Algorithms Laboratory in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) and is a member of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab.

    Joining Wornell on the paper are co-lead authors Abhin Shah, an EECS graduate student, and Yuheng Bu, a postdoc in RLE; as well as Joshua Ka-Wing Lee SM ’17, ScD ’21 and Subhro Das, Rameswar Panda, and Prasanna Sattigeri, research staff members at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. The paper will be presented this month at the International Conference on Machine Learning.

    To predict or not to predict

    Regression is a technique that estimates the relationship between a dependent variable and independent variables. In machine learning, regression analysis is commonly used for prediction tasks, such as predicting the price of a home given its features (number of bedrooms, square footage, etc.) With selective regression, the machine-learning model can make one of two choices for each input — it can make a prediction or abstain from a prediction if it doesn’t have enough confidence in its decision.

    When the model abstains, it reduces the fraction of samples it is making predictions on, which is known as coverage. By only making predictions on inputs that it is highly confident about, the overall performance of the model should improve. But this can also amplify biases that exist in a dataset, which occur when the model does not have sufficient data from certain subgroups. This can lead to errors or bad predictions for underrepresented individuals.

    The MIT researchers aimed to ensure that, as the overall error rate for the model improves with selective regression, the performance for every subgroup also improves. They call this monotonic selective risk.

    “It was challenging to come up with the right notion of fairness for this particular problem. But by enforcing this criteria, monotonic selective risk, we can make sure the model performance is actually getting better across all subgroups when you reduce the coverage,” says Shah.

    Focus on fairness

    The team developed two neural network algorithms that impose this fairness criteria to solve the problem.

    One algorithm guarantees that the features the model uses to make predictions contain all information about the sensitive attributes in the dataset, such as race and sex, that is relevant to the target variable of interest. Sensitive attributes are features that may not be used for decisions, often due to laws or organizational policies. The second algorithm employs a calibration technique to ensure the model makes the same prediction for an input, regardless of whether any sensitive attributes are added to that input.

    The researchers tested these algorithms by applying them to real-world datasets that could be used in high-stakes decision making. One, an insurance dataset, is used to predict total annual medical expenses charged to patients using demographic statistics; another, a crime dataset, is used to predict the number of violent crimes in communities using socioeconomic information. Both datasets contain sensitive attributes for individuals.

    When they implemented their algorithms on top of a standard machine-learning method for selective regression, they were able to reduce disparities by achieving lower error rates for the minority subgroups in each dataset. Moreover, this was accomplished without significantly impacting the overall error rate.

    “We see that if we don’t impose certain constraints, in cases where the model is really confident, it could actually be making more errors, which could be very costly in some applications, like health care. So if we reverse the trend and make it more intuitive, we will catch a lot of these errors. A major goal of this work is to avoid errors going silently undetected,” Sattigeri says.

    The researchers plan to apply their solutions to other applications, such as predicting house prices, student GPA, or loan interest rate, to see if the algorithms need to be calibrated for those tasks, says Shah. They also want to explore techniques that use less sensitive information during the model training process to avoid privacy issues.

    And they hope to improve the confidence estimates in selective regression to prevent situations where the model’s confidence is low, but its prediction is correct. This could reduce the workload on humans and further streamline the decision-making process, Sattigeri says.

    This research was funded, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and its member companies Boston Scientific, Samsung, and Wells Fargo, and by the National Science Foundation. More

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    Artificial intelligence predicts patients’ race from their medical images

    The miseducation of algorithms is a critical problem; when artificial intelligence mirrors unconscious thoughts, racism, and biases of the humans who generated these algorithms, it can lead to serious harm. Computer programs, for example, have wrongly flagged Black defendants as twice as likely to reoffend as someone who’s white. When an AI used cost as a proxy for health needs, it falsely named Black patients as healthier than equally sick white ones, as less money was spent on them. Even AI used to write a play relied on using harmful stereotypes for casting. 

    Removing sensitive features from the data seems like a viable tweak. But what happens when it’s not enough? 

    Examples of bias in natural language processing are boundless — but MIT scientists have investigated another important, largely underexplored modality: medical images. Using both private and public datasets, the team found that AI can accurately predict self-reported race of patients from medical images alone. Using imaging data of chest X-rays, limb X-rays, chest CT scans, and mammograms, the team trained a deep learning model to identify race as white, Black, or Asian — even though the images themselves contained no explicit mention of the patient’s race. This is a feat even the most seasoned physicians cannot do, and it’s not clear how the model was able to do this. 

    In an attempt to tease out and make sense of the enigmatic “how” of it all, the researchers ran a slew of experiments. To investigate possible mechanisms of race detection, they looked at variables like differences in anatomy, bone density, resolution of images — and many more, and the models still prevailed with high ability to detect race from chest X-rays. “These results were initially confusing, because the members of our research team could not come anywhere close to identifying a good proxy for this task,” says paper co-author Marzyeh Ghassemi, an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), who is an affiliate of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and of the MIT Jameel Clinic. “Even when you filter medical images past where the images are recognizable as medical images at all, deep models maintain a very high performance. That is concerning because superhuman capacities are generally much more difficult to control, regulate, and prevent from harming people.”

    In a clinical setting, algorithms can help tell us whether a patient is a candidate for chemotherapy, dictate the triage of patients, or decide if a movement to the ICU is necessary. “We think that the algorithms are only looking at vital signs or laboratory tests, but it’s possible they’re also looking at your race, ethnicity, sex, whether you’re incarcerated or not — even if all of that information is hidden,” says paper co-author Leo Anthony Celi, principal research scientist in IMES at MIT and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Just because you have representation of different groups in your algorithms, that doesn’t guarantee it won’t perpetuate or magnify existing disparities and inequities. Feeding the algorithms with more data with representation is not a panacea. This paper should make us pause and truly reconsider whether we are ready to bring AI to the bedside.” 

    The study, “AI recognition of patient race in medical imaging: a modeling study,” was published in Lancet Digital Health on May 11. Celi and Ghassemi wrote the paper alongside 20 other authors in four countries.

    To set up the tests, the scientists first showed that the models were able to predict race across multiple imaging modalities, various datasets, and diverse clinical tasks, as well as across a range of academic centers and patient populations in the United States. They used three large chest X-ray datasets, and tested the model on an unseen subset of the dataset used to train the model and a completely different one. Next, they trained the racial identity detection models for non-chest X-ray images from multiple body locations, including digital radiography, mammography, lateral cervical spine radiographs, and chest CTs to see whether the model’s performance was limited to chest X-rays. 

    The team covered many bases in an attempt to explain the model’s behavior: differences in physical characteristics between different racial groups (body habitus, breast density), disease distribution (previous studies have shown that Black patients have a higher incidence for health issues like cardiac disease), location-specific or tissue specific differences, effects of societal bias and environmental stress, the ability of deep learning systems to detect race when multiple demographic and patient factors were combined, and if specific image regions contributed to recognizing race. 

    What emerged was truly staggering: The ability of the models to predict race from diagnostic labels alone was much lower than the chest X-ray image-based models. 

    For example, the bone density test used images where the thicker part of the bone appeared white, and the thinner part appeared more gray or translucent. Scientists assumed that since Black people generally have higher bone mineral density, the color differences helped the AI models to detect race. To cut that off, they clipped the images with a filter, so the model couldn’t color differences. It turned out that cutting off the color supply didn’t faze the model — it still could accurately predict races. (The “Area Under the Curve” value, meaning the measure of the accuracy of a quantitative diagnostic test, was 0.94–0.96). As such, the learned features of the model appeared to rely on all regions of the image, meaning that controlling this type of algorithmic behavior presents a messy, challenging problem. 

    The scientists acknowledge limited availability of racial identity labels, which caused them to focus on Asian, Black, and white populations, and that their ground truth was a self-reported detail. Other forthcoming work will include potentially looking at isolating different signals before image reconstruction, because, as with bone density experiments, they couldn’t account for residual bone tissue that was on the images. 

    Notably, other work by Ghassemi and Celi led by MIT student Hammaad Adam has found that models can also identify patient self-reported race from clinical notes even when those notes are stripped of explicit indicators of race. Just as in this work, human experts are not able to accurately predict patient race from the same redacted clinical notes.

    “We need to bring social scientists into the picture. Domain experts, which are usually the clinicians, public health practitioners, computer scientists, and engineers are not enough. Health care is a social-cultural problem just as much as it’s a medical problem. We need another group of experts to weigh in and to provide input and feedback on how we design, develop, deploy, and evaluate these algorithms,” says Celi. “We need to also ask the data scientists, before any exploration of the data, are there disparities? Which patient groups are marginalized? What are the drivers of those disparities? Is it access to care? Is it from the subjectivity of the care providers? If we don’t understand that, we won’t have a chance of being able to identify the unintended consequences of the algorithms, and there’s no way we’ll be able to safeguard the algorithms from perpetuating biases.”

    “The fact that algorithms ‘see’ race, as the authors convincingly document, can be dangerous. But an important and related fact is that, when used carefully, algorithms can also work to counter bias,” says Ziad Obermeyer, associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley, whose research focuses on AI applied to health. “In our own work, led by computer scientist Emma Pierson at Cornell, we show that algorithms that learn from patients’ pain experiences can find new sources of knee pain in X-rays that disproportionately affect Black patients — and are disproportionately missed by radiologists. So just like any tool, algorithms can be a force for evil or a force for good — which one depends on us, and the choices we make when we build algorithms.”

    The work is supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health. More

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    The downside of machine learning in health care

    While working toward her dissertation in computer science at MIT, Marzyeh Ghassemi wrote several papers on how machine-learning techniques from artificial intelligence could be applied to clinical data in order to predict patient outcomes. “It wasn’t until the end of my PhD work that one of my committee members asked: ‘Did you ever check to see how well your model worked across different groups of people?’”

    That question was eye-opening for Ghassemi, who had previously assessed the performance of models in aggregate, across all patients. Upon a closer look, she saw that models often worked differently — specifically worse — for populations including Black women, a revelation that took her by surprise. “I hadn’t made the connection beforehand that health disparities would translate directly to model disparities,” she says. “And given that I am a visible minority woman-identifying computer scientist at MIT, I am reasonably certain that many others weren’t aware of this either.”

    In a paper published Jan. 14 in the journal Patterns, Ghassemi — who earned her doctorate in 2017 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) — and her coauthor, Elaine Okanyene Nsoesie of Boston University, offer a cautionary note about the prospects for AI in medicine. “If used carefully, this technology could improve performance in health care and potentially reduce inequities,” Ghassemi says. “But if we’re not actually careful, technology could worsen care.”

    It all comes down to data, given that the AI tools in question train themselves by processing and analyzing vast quantities of data. But the data they are given are produced by humans, who are fallible and whose judgments may be clouded by the fact that they interact differently with patients depending on their age, gender, and race, without even knowing it.

    Furthermore, there is still great uncertainty about medical conditions themselves. “Doctors trained at the same medical school for 10 years can, and often do, disagree about a patient’s diagnosis,” Ghassemi says. That’s different from the applications where existing machine-learning algorithms excel — like object-recognition tasks — because practically everyone in the world will agree that a dog is, in fact, a dog.

    Machine-learning algorithms have also fared well in mastering games like chess and Go, where both the rules and the “win conditions” are clearly defined. Physicians, however, don’t always concur on the rules for treating patients, and even the win condition of being “healthy” is not widely agreed upon. “Doctors know what it means to be sick,” Ghassemi explains, “and we have the most data for people when they are sickest. But we don’t get much data from people when they are healthy because they’re less likely to see doctors then.”

    Even mechanical devices can contribute to flawed data and disparities in treatment. Pulse oximeters, for example, which have been calibrated predominately on light-skinned individuals, do not accurately measure blood oxygen levels for people with darker skin. And these deficiencies are most acute when oxygen levels are low — precisely when accurate readings are most urgent. Similarly, women face increased risks during “metal-on-metal” hip replacements, Ghassemi and Nsoesie write, “due in part to anatomic differences that aren’t taken into account in implant design.” Facts like these could be buried within the data fed to computer models whose output will be undermined as a result.

    Coming from computers, the product of machine-learning algorithms offers “the sheen of objectivity,” according to Ghassemi. But that can be deceptive and dangerous, because it’s harder to ferret out the faulty data supplied en masse to a computer than it is to discount the recommendations of a single possibly inept (and maybe even racist) doctor. “The problem is not machine learning itself,” she insists. “It’s people. Human caregivers generate bad data sometimes because they are not perfect.”

    Nevertheless, she still believes that machine learning can offer benefits in health care in terms of more efficient and fairer recommendations and practices. One key to realizing the promise of machine learning in health care is to improve the quality of data, which is no easy task. “Imagine if we could take data from doctors that have the best performance and share that with other doctors that have less training and experience,” Ghassemi says. “We really need to collect this data and audit it.”

    The challenge here is that the collection of data is not incentivized or rewarded, she notes. “It’s not easy to get a grant for that, or ask students to spend time on it. And data providers might say, ‘Why should I give my data out for free when I can sell it to a company for millions?’ But researchers should be able to access data without having to deal with questions like: ‘What paper will I get my name on in exchange for giving you access to data that sits at my institution?’

    “The only way to get better health care is to get better data,” Ghassemi says, “and the only way to get better data is to incentivize its release.”

    It’s not only a question of collecting data. There’s also the matter of who will collect it and vet it. Ghassemi recommends assembling diverse groups of researchers — clinicians, statisticians, medical ethicists, and computer scientists — to first gather diverse patient data and then “focus on developing fair and equitable improvements in health care that can be deployed in not just one advanced medical setting, but in a wide range of medical settings.”

    The objective of the Patterns paper is not to discourage technologists from bringing their expertise in machine learning to the medical world, she says. “They just need to be cognizant of the gaps that appear in treatment and other complexities that ought to be considered before giving their stamp of approval to a particular computer model.” More

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    Exploring the human stories behind the data

    Shaking in the back of a police cruiser, handcuffs digging into his wrists, Brian Williams was overwhelmed with fear. He had been pulled over, but before he was asked for his name, license, or registration, a police officer ordered him out of his car and into back of the police cruiser, saying into his radio, “Black male detained.” The officer’s explanation for these actions was: “for your safety and mine.”

    Williams walked away from the experience with two tickets, a pair of bruised wrists, and a desire to do everything in his power to prevent others from experiencing the utter powerlessness he had felt.

    Now an MIT senior majoring in biological engineering and minoring in Black studies, Williams has continued working to empower his community. Through experiences in and out of the classroom, he has leveraged his background in bioengineering to explore interests in public health and social justice, specifically looking at how the medical sector can uplift and support communities of color.

    Williams grew up in a close-knit family and community in Broward County, Florida, where he found comfort in the routine of Sunday church services, playing outside with friends, and cookouts on the weekends. Broward County was home to him — a home he felt deeply invested in and indebted to.

    “It takes a village. The Black community has invested a lot in me, and I have a lot to invest back in it,” he says.

    Williams initially focused on STEM subjects at MIT, but in his sophomore year, his interests in exploring data science and humanities research led him to an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project in the Department of Political Science. Working with Professor Ariel White, he analyzed information on incarceration and voting rights, studied the behavior patterns of police officers, and screened 911 calls to identify correlations between how people described events to how the police responded to them.

    In the summer before his junior year, Williams also joined MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab, where he worked as a researcher for the Missing Data Project, which uses both journalism and data science to visualize statistics and humanize the people behind the numbers. As the project’s name suggests, there is often much to be learned from seeking out data that aren’t easily available. Using datasets and interviews describing how the pandemic affected Black communities, Williams and a team of researchers created a series called the Color of Covid, which told the stories behind the grim statistics on race and the pandemic.

    The following year, Williams undertook a research-and-development internship with the biopharmaceutical company Amgen in San Francisco, working on protein engineering to combat autoimmune diseases. Because this work was primarily in the lab, focusing on science-based applications, he saw it as an opportunity to ask himself: “Do I want to dedicate my life to this area of bioengineering?” He found the issue of social justice to be more compelling.

    At the same time, Williams was drawn toward tackling problems the local Black community was experiencing related to the pandemic. He found himself thinking deeply about how to educate the public, address disparities in case rates, and, above all, help people.

    Working through Amgen’s Black Employee Resource Group and its Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Team, Williams crafted a proposal, which the company adopted, for addressing Covid-19 vaccination misinformation in Black and Brown communities in San Mateo and San Francisco County. He paid special attention to how to frame vaccine hesitancy among members of these communities, understanding that a longstanding history of racism in scientific discovery and medicine led many Black and Brown people to distrust the entire medical industry.

    “Trying to meet people where they are is important,” Williams says.

    This experience reinforced the idea for Williams that he wanted to do everything in his power to uplift the Black community.

    “I think it’s only right that I go out and I shine bright because it’s not easy being Black. You know, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” he says.

    As the current political action co-chair of the MIT Black Students’ Union (BSU), Williams also works to inspire change on campus, promoting and participating in events that uplift the BSU. During his Amgen internship, he also organized the MIT Black History Month Takeover Series, which involved organizing eight events from February through the beginning of spring semester. These included promotions through social media and virtual meetings for students and faculty. For his leadership, he received the “We Are Family” award from the BSU executive board.

    Williams prioritizes community in everything he does, whether in the classroom, at a campus event, or spending time outside in local communities of color around Boston.

    “The things that really keep me going are the stories of other people,” says Williams, who is currently applying to a variety of postgraduate programs. After receiving MIT endorsement, he applied to the Rhodes and Marshall Fellowships; he also plans to apply to law school with a joint master’s degree in public health and policy.

    Ultimately, Williams hopes to bring his fight for racial justice to the policy level, looking at how a long, ongoing history of medical racism has led marginalized communities to mistrust current scientific endeavors. He wants to help bring about new legislation to fix old systems which disproportionately harm communities of color. He says he aims to be “an engineer of social solutions, one who reaches deep into their toolbox of social justice, pulling the levers of activism, advocacy, democracy, and legislation to radically change our world — to improve our social institutions at the root and liberate our communities.” While he understands this is a big feat, he sees his ambition as an asset.

    “I’m just another person with huge aspirations, and an understanding that you have to go get it if you want it,” he says. “You feel me? At the end of the day, this is just the beginning of my story. And I’m grateful to everyone in my life that’s helping me write it. Tap in.” More