How to talk and write about fairness in AI

The following style guide builds on work from various sources including the Fairlearn contributors and Microsoft’s Aether Fairness Working Group. It is meant to provide a clear and easy to follow guide for contributors. Every pull request is expected to abide by the guide. If you want to add to the list feel free to send a pull request.

  • Be clear that there is no single definition of fairness that will apply equally well to all AI systems.

  • Be clear that any quantitative definition of fairness will omit aspects of fairness (as a societal concept) that cannot be quantified (e.g., justice, due process, remedying historical societal injustices).

  • Be clear that given the many complex sources of unfairness, it is not possible to fully debias a system or to guarantee fairness. The goal is to assess and mitigate fairness-related harms as much as possible. For this reason, don’t usewords like debias, unbiased, solve – they set up unrealistic expectations. Use words like mitigate, address, prioritize, assess instead.

  • Be clear that AI systems (and technology in general) are never neutral – all AI systems necessarily reflect the assumptions, priorities, and values of the people involved in their development and deployment.

  • Be clear that prioritizing fairness in AI systems often means making tradeoffs based on competing priorities. There are seldom clear-cut answers. This is why using the word solve is seldom appropriate.

  • Be clear that prioritizing fairness in AI systems is a sociotechnical challenge. It is not something that can be accomplished via purely technical methods (or purely social methods, for that matter).

  • Be clear that there is no software tool that will solve fairness in all AI systems. This is not to say that software tools don’t have a role to play, but they will be precise, targeted, and only part of the picture.

  • Be clear that even with precise, targeted tools, it’s easy to overlook things, especially things that are difficult to quantify – software tools must be supplemented with other resources and processes.

  • There are many reasons why AI systems can behave unfairly, not just societal biases. Also bias is ambiguous and means different things to different communities – e.g., statistical bias vs. societal biases. For this reason, talk about fairness issues or fairness-related harms rather than bias, unless you are very specifically referring to societal biases (or statistical bias or some other definition of bias). Better yet, be specific about the type of fairness-related harm – is this a harm of allocation, quality of service, stereotyping, denigration, or over- or under-representation? Be clear that different types of fairness-related harm are not mutually exclusive. A single AI system can exhibit more than one type.

  • Be clear that fairness-related harms can have varying severities, but that the cumulative impact of even non-severe harms can be extremely burdensome or make people feel singled out or undervalued.

  • Be clear that fairness-related harms can affect both the people who will use an AI system and the people who will be directly or indirectly affected by the system, either by choice or not. For this reason, when talking about the people who might be harmed by a system, talk about stakeholders not users.

  • When talking about who might be harmed, don’t just focus on demographic groups (e.g., groups defined in terms of race, gender, age, disability status, skin tone, and their intersections) or groups that are protected by anti-discrimination laws. The most relevant groups may be context specific.

  • Be clear that stakeholders can belong to overlapping or intersectional groups – e.g., different combinations of race, gender, and age – and considering each group separately may obscure harms.

  • Be clear that fairness-related harms can be (re-)introduced at every stage of the AI development and deployment lifecycle and can arise due to any component of an AI system, not just datasets or models – e.g., task definitions, user experiences, evaluation metrics, or deployment contexts.