News and Analysis of Artificial Intelligence Technology Legal Issues

Washington State Seeks to Root Out Bias in Artificial Intelligence Systems

Washington State Seeks to Root Out Bias in Artificial Intelligence Systems

The harmful effects of biased algorithms have been widely reported.  Indeed, some of the world’s leading tech companies have been accused of producing applications, powered by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, that were later discovered to exhibit certain racial, cultural, gender, and other biases.  Some of the anecdotes are quite alarming, to say the least.  And while not all AI applications have these problems, it only takes a few concrete examples before lawmakers begin to take notice.

In New York City, lawmakers began addressing algorithmic bias in 2017 with the introduction of legislation aimed at eliminating bias from algorithmic-based automated decision systems used by city agencies.  That effort led to the establishment of a Task Force in 2018 under Mayor de Blasio’s office to examine the issue in detail.  A report from the Task Force is expected this year.

At the federal level, an increased focus by lawmakers on algorithmic bias issues began in 2018, as reported previously on this website (link) and elsewhere.  Those efforts, by both House and Senate members, focused primarily on gathering information from federal agencies like the FTC, and issuing reports highlighting the bias problem.  Expect congressional hearings in the coming months.

Now, Washington State lawmakers are addressing bias concerns.  In companion bills SB-5527 and HB-1655, introduced on January 23, 2019, lawmakers in Olympia drafted a rather comprehensive piece of legislation aimed at governing the use of automated decision systems by state agencies, including the use of automated decision-making in the triggering of automated weapon systems.  As many in the AI community have discussed, eliminating algorithmic-based bias requires consideration of fairness, accountability, and transparency, issues the Washington bills appear to address.  But the bills also have teeth, in the form of a private right of action allowing those harmed to sue.

Although the aspirational language of legislation often only provides a cursory glimpse at how stakeholders might be affected under a future law, especially in those instances where, as here, an agency head is tasked with producing implementing regulations, an examination of automated decisions system legislation like Washington’s is useful if only to understand how  states and the federal government might choose to regulate aspects of AI technologies and their societal impacts.

Purpose and need for anti-bias algorithm legislation

According to the bills’ sponsors, in Washington, automated decision systems are rapidly being adopted to make or assist in core decisions in a variety of government and business functions, including criminal justice, health care, education, employment, public benefits, insurance, and commerce.  These systems, the lawmakers say, are often deployed without public knowledge and are unregulated.  Their use raises concerns about due process, fairness, accountability, and transparency, as well as other civil rights and liberties.  Moreover, reliance on automated decision systems without adequate transparency, oversight, or safeguards can undermine market predictability, harm consumers, and deny historically disadvantaged or vulnerable groups the full measure of their civil rights and liberties.

Definitions, Prohibited Actions, and Risk Assessments

The new Washington law would define “automated decision systems” as any algorithm, including one incorporating machine learning or other AI techniques, that uses data-based analytics to make or support government decisions, judgments, or conclusions.  The law would distinguish “automated final decision system,” which are systems that make “final” decisions, judgments, or conclusions without human intervention, and “automated support decision system,” which provide information to inform the final decision, judgment, or conclusion of a human decision maker.

Under the new law, in using an automated decision system, an agency would be prohibited from discriminating against an individual, or treating an individual less favorably than another, in whole or in part, on the basis of one or more factors enumerated in RCW 49.60.010.  An agency would be outright prohibited from developing, procuring, or using an automated final decision system to make a decision impacting the constitutional or legal rights, duties, or privileges of any Washington resident, or to deploy or trigger any weapon.

Both versions of the bill include lengthy provisions detailing algorithmic accountability reports that agencies would be required to produce and publish for public comment.  Among other things, these reports must include clear information about the type or types of data inputs that a technology uses; how that data is generated, collected, and processed; and the type or types of data the systems are reasonably likely to generate, which could help reveal the degree of bias inherent in a system’s black box model.  The accountability reports also must identify and provide data showing benefits; describe where, when, and how the technology is to be deployed; and identify if results will be shared with other agencies. An agency that deploys an approved report would then be required to follow conditions that are set forth in the report.

Although an agency’s choice to classify its automated decision system as one that makes “final” or “support” decisions may be given deference by courts, the designations are likely to be challenged if the classification is not justified.  One reason a party might challenge designations is to obtain an injunction, which may be available in the case where an agency relies on a final decision made by an automated decision system, whereas an injunction may be more difficult to obtain in the case of algorithmic decisions that merely support a human decision-maker.  The distinction between the two designations may also be important during discovery, under a growing evidentiary theory of “machine testimony” that includes cross-examining machines witnesses by gaining access to source code and, in the case of machine learning models, the developer’s data used to train a machine’s model.  Supportive decision systems involving a human making a final decision may warrant a different approach to discovery.

Conditions impacting software makers

Under the proposed law, public agencies that use automated decision systems would be required to publicize the system’s name, its vendor, and the software version, along with the decision it will be used to make or support.  Notably, a vendor must make its software and the data used in the software “freely available” before, during, and after deployment for agency or independent third-party testing, auditing, or research to understand its impacts, including potential bias, inaccuracy, or disparate impacts.  The law would require any procurement contract for an automated decision system entered into by a public agency to include provisions that require vendors to waive any legal claims that may impair the “freely available” requirement.  For example, contracts with vendors could not contain nondisclosure impairment provisions, such as those related to assertions of trade secrets.

Accordingly, software companies who make automated decision systems will face the prospect of waiving proprietary and trade secret rights and opening up their algorithms and data to scrutiny by agencies, third parties, and researchers (presumably, under terms of confidentiality).  If litigation were to ensue, it could be difficult for vendors to resist third-party discovery requests on the basis of trade secrets, especially if information about auditing of the system by the state agency and third-party testers/researchers is available through administrative information disclosure laws.  A vendor who chooses to reveal the inner workings of a black box software application without safeguards should consider at least financial, legal, and market risks associated with such disclosure.

Contesting automated decisions and private right of action

Under the proposed law, public agencies would be required to announce procedures how an individual impacted by a decision made by an automated decision system can contest the decision.  In particular, any decision made or informed by an automated decision system will be subject to administrative appeal, an immediate suspension if a legal right, duty, or privilege is impacted by the decision, and a potential reversal by a human decision-maker through an open due process procedure.  The agency must also explain the basis for its decision to any impacted individual in terms “understandable” to laypersons including, without limitation, by requiring the software vendor to create such an explanation.  Thus, vendors may become material participants in administrative proceedings involving a contested decision made by its software.

In addition to administrative relief, the law would provide a private right of action for injured parties to sue public agencies in state court.  In particular, any person who is injured by a material violation of the law, including denial of any government benefit on the basis of an automated decision system that does not meet the standards of the law, may seek injunctive relief, including restoration of the government benefit in question, declaratory relief, or a writ of mandate to enforce the law.

For litigators representing injured parties in such cases, dealing with evidentiary issues involving information produced by machines would likely follow Washington judicial precedent in areas of administrative law, contracts, tort, civil rights, the substantive law involving the agency’s jurisdiction (e.g., housing, law enforcement, etc.), and even product liability.  In the case of AI-based automated decision systems, however, special attention may need to be given to the nuances of machine learning algorithms to prepare experts and take depositions in cases brought under the law.  Although the aforementioned algorithmic accountability report could be useful evidence for both sides in an automated decision system lawsuit, merely understanding the result of an algorithmic decision may not be sufficient when assessing if a public agency was thorough in its approach to vetting a system.  Being able to describe how the automated decision system works will be important.  For agencies, understanding the nuances of the software products they procure will be important to establish that they met their duty to vet the software under the new law.

For example, where AI machine learning models are involved, new data, or even previous data used in a different way (i.e., a different cross-validation scheme or a random splitting of data into new training and testing subsets), can generate models that produce slightly different outcomes.  While small, the difference could mean granting or denying agency services to constituents.  Moreover, with new data and model updates comes the possibility of introducing or amplifying bias that was not previously observed.  The Washington bills do not appear to include provisions imposing an on-going duty on vendors to inform agencies when bias or other problems later appear in software updates (though it’s possible the third party auditors or researchers noted above might discover it).  Thus, vendors might expect agencies to demand transparency as a condition set forth in acquisition agreements, including software support requirements and help with developing algorithmic accountability reports.  Vendors might also expect to play a role in defending against claims by those alleging injury, should the law pass.  And they could be asked to shoulder some of the liability either through indemnification or other means of contractual risk-shifting to the extent the bills add damages as a remedy.