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Improving Fairness in Machine Learning Models

MIT researchers have found that machine-learning models that are popular for image recognition tasks actually encode bias when trained on unbalanced data. This bias within the model is impossible to fix later on, even with state-of-the-art fairness-boosting techniques, and even when retraining the model with a balanced dataset.

So, the researchers came up with a technique to introduce fairness directly into the model’s internal representation itself. This enables the model to produce fair outputs even if it is trained on unfair data, which is especially important because there are very few well-balanced datasets for machine learning. The solution they developed not only leads to models that make more balanced predictions but also improves their performance on downstream tasks like facial recognition and animal species classification.

In machine learning, it is common to blame the data for bias in models. But we don’t always have balanced data. So, we need to come up with methods that actually fix the problem with imbalanced data.

– Natalie Dullerud, Lead Author

The machine-learning technique the researchers studied is known as deep metric learning, which is a broad form of representation learning. In deep metric learning, a neural network learns the similarity between objects by mapping similar photos close together and dissimilar photos far apart. During training, this neural network maps images in an “embedding space” where a similarity metric between photos corresponds to the distance between them.

For example, if a deep metric learning model is being used to classify bird species, it will map photos of golden finches together in one part of the embedding space and cardinals together in another part of the embedding space. Once trained, the model can effectively measure the similarity of new images it hasn’t seen before. It would learn to cluster images of an unseen bird species close together, but farther from cardinals or golden finches within the embedding space.

The researchers defined two ways that a similarity metric can be unfair. Using the example of facial recognition, the metric will be unfair if it is more likely to embed individuals with darker-skinned faces closer to each other, even if they are not the same person, than it would if those images were people with lighter-skinned faces. Second, it will be unfair if the features it learns for measuring similarity are better for the majority group than for the minority group.

The researchers’ solution, called Partial Attribute Decorrelation (PARADE), involves training the model to learn a separate similarity metric for a sensitive attribute, like skin tone, and then decorrelating the skin tone similarity metric from the targeted similarity metric. If the model is learning the similarity metrics of different human faces, it will learn to map similar faces close together and dissimilar faces far apart using features other than skin tone.

Their method is applicable to many situations because the user can control the amount of decorrelation between similarity metrics. For instance, if the model will be diagnosing breast cancer from mammogram images, a clinician likely wants some information about biological sex to remain in the final embedding space because it is much more likely that women will have breast cancer than men.

They tested their method on two tasks, facial recognition and classifying bird species, and found that it reduced performance gaps caused by bias, both in the embedding space and in the downstream task, regardless of the dataset they used. Moving forward, the researchers are interested in studying how to force a deep metric learning model to learn good features in the first place.

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