IBM. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DAVID PAUL MORRIS
IBM. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DAVID PAUL MORRIS

Oakland — IBM is developing tools that would ensure online advertising algorithms do not unfairly show adverts to specific groups only, such as mostly men or wealthy people, aiming to address discrimination concerns that have drawn industrywide scrutiny.

A team of 14 people will research “fairness” in adverts over the next six months, exploring ways to spot and mitigate unintended bias, including in audiences and the messages themselves, the company said on Thursday.

Academic researchers and civil rights groups have found that for a decade some audiences including black people and women can be excluded from seeing job, housing and other ads because of potentially unlawful choices made by advertisers or automated systems they use.

Facebook and Google, which are the biggest sellers of digital adverts, enacted some changes after complaints by US anti-discrimination regulators and activists. But problems remain, while greater concern about data privacy has already begun reshaping internet marketing.

“The foundation of advertising is crumbling and we have to rebuild the house,” IBM senior vice-president Bob Lord said. “While we’re at it, let’s ensure fairness is in the blueprint.”

IBM’s Watson Advertising unit sells adverts on its The Weather Company properties and also provides advertising software to other businesses. Clients eventually could be pitched on anti-bias offerings.

IBM’s initial analysis of its own advertising purchases suggests adverts can be shown fairly equally to all groups without affecting measures such as the percentage of users who click an advert, said Robert Redmond, the head of AI ad product design.

Redmond offered as a hypothetical example a system told by an advertiser to direct an advert to men across the US. It may start showing the advert to only those who are in big cities and white because that group clicks more. IBM is researching whether artificial intelligence programs can spot that and then redirect the adverts more equally.

The company next plans to analyse data from the nonprofit Ad Council’s public service announcements about Covid-19 vaccines.

“Systemic bias is unfortunately baked into nearly every corner of the advertising industry,” said Lisa Sherman, the council’s president and CEO.

“We hope this research undertaking will help validate that the steps we take to mitigate unintended bias [and] identify areas for us and others to continue refining.”

Reuters

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