Microsoft Research Podcast

Microsoft Research Podcast

An ongoing series of conversations bringing you right up to the cutting edge of Microsoft Research.

Examining the social impacts of artificial intelligence with Dr. Fernando Diaz

June 27, 2018 | By Microsoft blog editor

Dr. Fernando Diaz – Principal Research Manager at Microsoft Research

Episode 30, June 27, 2018

Developing complex artificial intelligence systems in a lab is a challenging task, but what happens when they go into production and interact with real humans? That’s what researchers like Dr. Fernando Diaz, a Principal Research Manager at Microsoft Research Montreal, want to know. He and his colleagues are trying to understand – and address – the social implications of these systems as they enter the open world.

Today, Dr. Diaz shares his insights on the kinds of questions we need to be asking about artificial intelligence and its impact on society. He also talks about how algorithms can affect your taste in music, and why now, more than ever, computer science education needs to teach ethics along with algorithms.



Fernando Diaz: If I’m running an experiment, what is an ethnical experiment, what’s an unethical experiment to run on users? To what extent should users be aware of the fact that they’re in experiments? How am I going to recognize and address biases in the data that my machine’s learning from? And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s going to be plenty of other questions that are going to be raised in the next few years, about how we design these systems in a way that is respectful of our users.

Host: You’re listening to the Microsoft Research Podcast, a show that brings you closer to the cutting-edge of technology research and the scientists behind it. I’m your host, Gretchen Huizinga.

Developing complex artificial intelligence systems in a lab is a challenging task, but what happens when they go into production and interact with real humans? That’s what researchers like Dr. Fernando Diaz, a Principal Research Manager at Microsoft Research Montreal, want to know. He and his colleagues are trying to understand – and address – the social implications of these systems as they enter the open world.

Today, Dr. Diaz shares his insights on the kinds of questions we need to be asking about artificial intelligence and its impact on society. He also talks about how algorithms can affect your taste in music, and why now, more than ever, computer science education needs to teach ethics along with algorithms. That and much more on this episode of the Microsoft Research Podcast.

Host: Fernando Diaz, welcome to the podcast.

Fernando Diaz: Thank you.

Host: You’re a Principle Research Manager at Microsoft Research Montreal and you work in artificial intelligence and search and information retrieval, but you’re also really involved in fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics, or FATE, research. So, in broad strokes—and we’ll get specific in a bit – what gets you up in the morning? What are the big questions you want answers to and the big problems you’d like to solve?

Fernando Diaz: Well, a lot of these systems that we’re building are extremely successful. So, information retrieval or web search, computer vision, these have all been developed over the course of many, many decades. And they’re starting to get productionized and users are starting to see them on a daily basis. What we haven’t thought so much about, in designing these systems, is, as computer scientists, what is the social context in which these things are being used? And so, my concern here is better understanding, you know, what are the social implications of these systems we’re building, how will the social context in which these systems are used affect not just our own metrics, like precision or recall, but also society at large? And I think this is something that’s just really coming to the fore for computer scientists, because a lot of these techniques that have been developed in isolation are just starting to be commercialized right now.

Host: So, you’re a computer scientist by training and you’ve done research in information retrieval, statistical methods, machine learning. But you’ve lately become very interested in the interface of these AI systems and society, particularly what happens when AI hits production or, as some people say, the open world. Why this interest for you now? What questions are you asking? What piqued your interest in going this direction?

Fernando Diaz: That’s a great question. So, I obviously went to graduate school and got a PhD, and was studying these systems at a pretty abstract level and really conducting experiments with data that was static and collected offline. And soon after graduate school, I came into an industrial research lab and was working with production teams that were implementing the techniques that I was studying in graduate school and you begin to realize that when you take these algorithms and you scale them out and you put them in front of real users, a lot of the basic assumptions that you were making in the laboratory were not well supported in reality. And so that was sort of a check for me in terms of my research agenda, really coming back to first principles and trying to understand better, ok, what is the problem here, what exactly do I need to be measuring, and how do I optimize for this right metric, whatever that might be?

Host: So, you were at Microsoft Research before, and then you took a bit of a break and then you came back. You started in New York and now you’re in Montreal. What brought you back?

Fernando Diaz: So, I had actually, after graduate school, started my industrial research career in Montreal and, for various reasons, I had to relocate out of Montreal, but even while I lived here, I recognized the city itself — and Canada in general – has a pretty rich tradition of very strong computer science research, machine learning research and in the back of my head, like I’d always wanted to come back to participate in that. And so, when the opportunity arose to re-join Microsoft Research in the new Montreal lab, it was the perfect fit. Especially since the lab itself focuses on artificial intelligence. The city itself is really going through a blossoming of AI research, and being part of that and contributing my voice to that broader conversation, is something that just made sense to me.

Host: Let’s talk about Montreal for a minute. It’s become a global hotspot in artificial intelligence research, and the goal of the SMR Montreal Lab is very specific: they want to teach machines to read, think and communicate like humans. Give us your particular take on where we are on this quest, and how your research interests align with what the Montreal lab is doing.

Fernando Diaz: Well I think part of the reason there’s a research lab in that area is the fact that there are still a lot of unanswered questions with respect to how to engineer these systems. And I think it will require more than just folks from natural language processing or more than just folks from dialog or reinforcement learning. It really requires the combination of those, and I think that’s one of the thing that makes this lab especially unique. Now, my role is to come into this lab and hopefully add to that conversation by providing a perspective of well, how will these systems actually behave when they’re in a human context? Because, like I said before, it’s very easy to design these systems in isolation and then when you deploy them, realize that there were some very strong assumptions in the experiments that you were conducting. Now the role of the group that I’m building is to try to sort of anticipate some of these questions and better engineer our systems to be robust to say, differences in the populations that I might be interacting with, or in the corpora that I might be gaining knowledge from.

Host: What is the group you’re building there?

Fernando Diaz: So, the group that I’m building is sort of a sibling organization of the Fairness, Accountability, Transparency and Ethics group that we started in New York City a few years ago. The focus will be on studying the social implications of artificial intelligence in society. And so that group will be composed of folks with a technical computer science background, but also a technical background from related disciplines such as sociology. And so, the idea here being here that in order for computer scientists to better understand and address the social implications, they really need experts in, you know, sociology, they need experts in anthropology, etc., to give us the insight into those things that we have not been measuring so well so far.

Host: Yeah, let’s talk about that. The Fairness Accountability, Transparency and Ethics application to a variety of artificial intelligence and machine learning technology research is super important right now. And as you bring up, this is because not all corner cases can be explored in the lab. And there are some unintended consequences, along with the intended ones, that can surprise people. And so, this community doing research in this area is quite diverse in terms of academic training. What do each of these experts bring to the mix when they’re looking at fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics?

Fernando Diaz: So, somebody from a social science background will have a better understanding of technology use in general, how it’s used or misused, and how people just react to certain tools that we provide them. Somebody from a legal background might be able to better comment on the policy implications of certain technologies that are being developed, or really give us a deeper understanding of what we mean when we talk about something like fairness. And then folks from the computer science community really understand the systems that are being developed and may be able to conceptualize some of the constraints, such as fairness, and incorporate them into the system. But it really requires these multiple perspectives to come up with better approaches to designing these systems.

Host: Let’s go back to some stuff you’ve done in the past and are still working on now: information access systems and search engine, information retrieval. And in a paper, you wrote you suggested there’s a gap between studying these systems and implementing them, but you also make a sort of provocative statement that there are open problems that are better addressed by academia than industry. What kinds of problems are those, and why do you make that statement?

Fernando Diaz: One of the things that happens in information access research is you have academics who have contributed to the community a lot, but these days, a lot of the say web search research is happening at the big web search companies, where they have the data, they have the users, etc., and a lot of times the academics don’t have access to the experimentation platforms or the data. And so, there’s a disparity in terms of the amount of rigor you can do in your research. So, what I was claiming in that article was that, you know, well academics even though they don’t have that amount of data they do have a broad set of collaborators that you may not find at the bigger search engine companies. So, at a university, you have access to sociologists and other departments. You have access to economics professors. All of these are potential collaborators which will help you understand the problem from multiple different perspectives instead of, perhaps, one, very specific, perspective which you might have in a web search company. I think data set releases are one strategy. One of the other approaches that I think – or one of the other types of scientific platforms that one would not have in academia is experimentation. I can actually run AB tests. You can run controlled experiments with large populations of users, which doesn’t really exist in a data set release.

Host: No, that’s true.

Fernando Diaz: And so, one of the things that I think is worth exploring is how do we actually provide access to academics for doing that sort of controlled experimentation?

Host: Interesting.

Fernando Diaz: That’s happened in bits and pieces here and there but think this is really something that we as an industrial researcher can think about providing.

(music plays)

Host: Ok, let’s go back to data. Let’s talk about data for a minute. In machine learning circles, there seems to be some consensus that it’s no longer good enough just to have “big data” and I use that with air quotes around it, but it also has to be good data or unbiased data, which is part of that mix. So, we know that there’s probable bias in a lot of these big data sets. And we need to fix that. People are now taking about trying to remove bias through things like search engine audits and fairness aware algorithms and that kind of thing. How do you do that?

Fernando Diaz: One of the reasons we’re concerned about bias in data is that the trained model will be biased when it’s deployed. And so, step one is to be able to detect whether or not the actions of an artificial intelligence are biased themselves and, if they are, how do I go back and retrain that algorithm, or add constraints to the algorithm, so it doesn’t learn the biases from the data? And so, my work to date has focused primarily on the measurement side of things. On the measurement side of things, it has more to do with understanding the users that are coming into the system, what they’re asking for and whether or not the system, by virtue of the fact of who the user is or what population they’re coming from, is behaving in a way that you would consider biased. And that requires a lot of the expertise from the information retrieval community who have been thinking a lot about measurement and evaluation for almost since the beginning of the research agenda of the community in the 50s. And so, this is what makes it a good natural fit between auditing and measurement and information retrieval.

Host: So, as we discussed bias has become a bit of a buzzword in data science and AI research, but you’ve suggested there are other social issues besides bias that also need to be addressed. What are some of these issues and how can your research help?

Fernando Diaz: Yeah, I do think that bias is a very important problem, but I think one of the reasons why I talk about the social implications of AI is because I think bias is just one of the social implications that we can detect. There are certainly others. So, a pretty clear one is transparency. So, how do I make the algorithm’s decisions about what it’s doing transparent to the user so that user feels a little bit more in control of the situation when they’re actually trying to cooperate with an algorithm? A second one would be sort of the cultural implications of algorithms. So, this happens more in the context of say, movie or music recommendations. So, I’m building this big system to recommend music to individuals. What are the longer-term cultural implications of deploying this recommendation algorithm if I know that, you know, recommending certain musicians will push somebody’s musical tastes in certain directions? In the long-term what does this mean for the creation or curation of culture? The other side of that problem is that music recommendation algorithms can really have profound effects on the creators or the musicians themselves. And so, I might, as a computer scientist, say well this is the best algorithm for music recommendation. I’m just going to deploy it. But as computer scientists we haven’t really thought about, well, what are the effects on the actual creators? I think that for me is one that is especially salient.

Host: So, so on that thread then how might you craft a research project that would ask these questions and how would you do your research there?

Fernando Diaz: Right, so let’s take this example of music recommendations. So, you can imagine sitting down with musicians and better understanding, like, what is important to them? What do they feel like they’re getting out of a system? How do they feel like they’re in control or out of control in a recommendation system, and sitting down with folks who come more from the sociology or anthropology backgrounds, media studies, to help me as a computer scientist understand what that big population of musicians look like. And then I can, as a computer scientist, sit down and try to better understand well, how do I design an algorithm which will both satisfy my listeners as well as satisfy my musicians? Now, I think even posing it that way is extremely reductive. And so, that’s why I wish there was somebody in the room from one of these other disciplines to point out and say, well, Fernando you know, you haven’t thought about this and this…

(music plays)

Host: So, given the nature of the research you do and all the things that you see as a result, is there anything that we should be concerned about? Anything that keeps you up at night?

Fernando Diaz: One of the things that does concern me is the fact that a lot of these techniques that we’re developing as a research community are being put out and then deployed into production within a matter of days or weeks by people who perhaps were not the original experimenters. Now, there’s nothing wrong with open science, but I do think that we need to be a bit more cognizant and aware of the effects that our algorithms will have before we rush to deploy them. And what I’m concerned is we’re sort of quickly pushing out newer and newer algorithms without having a deeper understanding of those implications.

Host: Microsoft Research has a reputation for working closely with academic institutions. And I know that education is something you’re passionate about. So, talk about what’s going on in FATE, or fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics education, and tell us your vision for the future for education in this area.

Fernando Diaz: So, I think when I went to graduate school, or even undergraduate for computer science, one of the things that was not really taught so well was ethics, or the social implications of the technologies that we’re developing. And I think part of the reason for that is that, you know, you’re studying operating systems or you’re studying information retrieval at an abstract level. You’re not really thinking about a context in which it’s going to be deployed and, to be honest, the class is hard enough having to just think about the core algorithms. And so, I think, at least when I was trained and even now, like, understanding the, the social implications and social responsibility that you have as an engineer or scientist did not really make it into the conversation. And so, I think that’s being recognized now. I think, I think that computer science departments are starting to develop curricula around ethics and computer science, and so I think students are starting to be trained. My concern, though, is that you know we already have a lot of people out there developing systems that have not gone through that training. On top of that, there’s not a lot — I mean, you don’t need a computer science PhD in order to start up a company. So, that part of the, you know, “who’s not covered by education?” is another thing that keeps me up at night. But in terms of the education side of things, I think as somebody who’s been in an industrial research lab, I can provide that perspective to students when I’m in the classroom. So, to better understand, not just the practical implications of deploying a machine learning system at scale, but also the social and ethical implications of deploying a machine learning system at scale. And this is exactly the sorts of questions I alluded to before. If I’m running an experiment, what is an ethnical experiment, what’s an unethical experiment to run on users? To what extent should users be aware of the fact that they’re in experiments? How am I going to recognize and address biases in the data that my machine’s learning from? And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s going to be plenty of other questions that are going to be raised in the next few years about how we design these systems in a way that is respectful of our users.

Host: You know, you see the history of other areas, for example, medicine, and the Hippocratic Oath, “first, do no harm,” and, and also the systems that are set up in place to help ensure that people aren’t harmed. And, and we think naturally about that with physical trials. And it’s just really encouraging to know that we’re starting to think about that in artificial intelligence deployment at large scale. Even though we don’t have like an FDA for AI, there’s movement.

Fernando Diaz: Yeah, and I think it’s important to understand that that movement has happened in other disciplines, as you said, and so, it’s not like we’re going through this the first time. And so, to the extent that we can reach out to folks in the medical ethics community or folks in the social sciences, they can help us develop what it means to be a responsible computer scientist. I mean if we were starting from ground zero, like, that’s especially daunting but I think we do have collaborators across the disciplines that can help us with this problem.

Host: So, as we close, Fernando, what’s on the horizon for the next generation of researchers in your area? I know that’s a big question, but at least what thoughts or advice might you leave with our listeners, many of whom are aspiring researchers, who might have an interest in the social impact of AI?

Fernando Diaz: So, I think for folks interested in that area specifically, I think a lot of the research that’s happening right now is really day one of a much, much longer research agenda. I think it’s an extremely exciting area to be involved in because, while we’re starting to ask the fundamental questions now, I also think that there’s a lot of additional fundamental questions that have yet to be asked by exactly those young researchers right now. I think in terms of the social impact of that research, it’s potentially very large, because there are a lot of these systems that are already deployed. And so, your ability to be involved in, say, a product like a search engine that has social impacts and to correct those things is extremely powerful. So, it’s a great time to be a young researcher.

(music plays)

Host: Fernando Diaz, it’s been great talking to you. And, super encouraging, so thanks for taking time to talk to us today.

Fernando Diaz: Thank you very much.

Host: To learn more about Dr. Fernando Diaz, and his research on fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics in computer science, visit

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