The importance of transparency and user control in machine learning

[A version of this post appears on the O’Reilly Radar.]

The O’Reilly Data Show Podcast: Guillaume Chaslot on bias and extremism in content recommendations.

In this episode of the Data Show, I spoke with Guillaume Chaslot, an ex-YouTube engineer and founder of AlgoTransparency, an organization dedicated to helping the public understand the profound impact algorithms have on our lives. We live in an age when many of our interactions with companies and services are governed by algorithms. At a time when their impact continues to grow, there are many settings where these algorithms are far from transparent. There is growing awareness about the vast amounts of data companies are collecting on their users and customers, and people are starting to demand control over their data. A similar conversation is starting to happen about algorithms—users are wanting more control over what these models optimize for and an understanding of how they work.

I first came across Chaslot through a series of articles about the power and impact of YouTube on politics and society. Many of the articles I read relied on data and analysis supplied by Chaslot. We talked about his work trying to decipher how YouTube’s recommendation system works, filter bubbles, transparency in machine learning, and data privacy.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Why YouTube’s impact is less understood

My theory why people completely overlooked YouTube is because on Facebook and Twitter, if one of your friends posts something strange, you’ll see it. Even if you have 1,000 friends, if one of them posts something really disturbing, you see it, so you’re more aware of the problem. Whereas on YouTube, some people binge watch some very weird things that could be propaganda, but we won’t know about it because we don’t see what other people see. So, YouTube is like a TV channel that doesn’t show the same thing to everybody and when you ask YouTube, “What did you show to other people?” YouTube says, ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember, I don’t want to tell you.’

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