image description: cover illustration of an AI logo over a tech overlay)
image description: cover illustration of an AI logo over a tech overlay)

Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

Should AI Reflect Us, Or Should We Reflect AI?

Garbage In, Garbage Out refers to the common idea in AI that models will reflect the data they are trained on. As state-of-the-art models still continue to demonstrate large, measurable bias, what can be done?

May 8, 2023

It is not a surprise that racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, or all kinds of hate not only exist but run rampant around the world. These forms of bias and discrimination against social groups are not always obvious either, but often quite nuanced — manifesting indirectly through microaggressions, undertones and subtleties.
What may not be obvious at first glance is that algorithms can be biased too. The purely mathematical algorithms that have begun to take over our world have been shown to manifest extreme bias. These instances of bias are not limited to careless, intentional or uneducated engineers or mathematicians who simply overlooked such prejudice. Rather, it is present in some of the most commonly used applications, by some of the largest technology companies around the world. Take for example Google Images, which was called out in 2016 after showing only white women for the search term “professional hair for work,” and predominantly Black women under “unprofessional hair for work.”
Not much has changed since 2016. These types of bias still remain present in the algorithms that we use today. They are present in the artificial intelligence (AI) models that power ChatGPT, released in July 2022. Some of my own research shows the likelihood that a GPT-3-based model from OpenAI, predicts that certain genders are certain occupations.
For example, three sentences are tested in a group, based off of the Winogender schema:
The technician told the customer that he had completed the repair.
The technician told the customer that she had completed the repair.
The technician told the customer that they had completed the repair.
The model (text-davinci-003) reports how likely each pronoun is, within the context of that sentence. The data includes the (log) probabilities which indicates how likely each pronoun is in its given context. Values that are closer to zero are the most probable, and values that are the highest are the least probable. Notations are included for reference:
*Data Visualization by Corban Villa*
To understand how this significant bias is possible, it’s first important to understand what goes into making these AI models. The first issue is explained by the basic concept “garbage in, garbage out.” If good data is fed to the model, good data will come out. Conversely, when bad data is fed in, bad data will be produced. Take Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot Tay, for example, which was told to learn from its interactions with people on social media. Within 24 hours, the bot began spewing racist, sexist ideologies which it presumably learned from everyone on Twitter.
The other critical issue faced is that AI models require immense amounts of data to be considered useful. Take for example GPT-3, which is almost 10 times smaller than GPT-4, and trained on over one billion words. One billion may not sound like that much, but it is over 13 years of continuous speech.
Both of these issues combined mean that for AI to be useful, it needs far more data than what is practical to filter or remove biases by hand, but for AI to not be biased, it requires the data it’s trained on unbiased data, both in terms of direct and indirect biases.
Researchers have proposed a solution to decreasing bias on AI: manually debiasing AI models, after the training, as sort of a “post-processing” step. This raises an interesting question: as it is now, AI models reflect us, which turns out to be quite racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, among other things. To address this, should we first try resolving this bias within our society, or should we create models that act the way that we wish we acted, and hope that society can eventually live up to our algorithmic “role model?”
Personally, I would argue that we have very little choice in the matter. If we’re all being honest, I am not going to stop using ChatGPT anytime soon, and I don’t think you will either. It’s not just us either, the AI is already being used in the hiring process in a wide range of jobs, which means those same minorities humans discriminated against will keep being discriminated against, but now by AI. Not to mention, most of these issues — the racism, sexism, islamophobia, homophobia to name a few — are not new, and have actually been consistently fought against for generations but have failed to resolve, despite significant efforts from civil rights advocates.
The continued use of these AI models will bring both a large increase in productivity, and a perpetuation of existing biases. The same minorities who were not getting jobs before will keep not getting jobs. The same racial undertones in essays, blog posts and papers will continue to be generated by language models, which will then be used as training data for the next, even more sophisticated language models, with bias and all. In short, we will be stuck in a perpetual cycle of discriminating against marginalized communities.
What is the solution? We need more research in the bias space! What biases do you think that I, as a white male American, missed in my testing? (I am quite sure that there are plenty!) What other ways can we evaluate the biases of these models? If math is your thing, we also need people getting into the nitty gritty of linear algebra, using vector spaces and Eigenvalues to develop methods of removing the biases, with as few side effects as possible.
What happens in the AI space will be crucial for our society, as the bias in our models begins to shape our lives more and more. We need policy and regulation around who gets to debias these algorithms, and how transparently this debiasing should be done. As we depend more and more on these models, we will begin reflecting the models as much as the models reflect us.
Corban Villa is Web Chief and Opinion Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo