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Algorithmic Injustice 

Tafari Mbadiwe

Don’t blame the algorithm — as long as there are racial disparities in the justice system, sentencing software can never be entirely fair

For generations, the Maasai people of eastern Africa have passed down the story of a tireless old man. He lived alone and his life was not easy. He spent every day in the fields — tilling the land, tending the animals, and gathering water. The work was as necessary as it was exhausting. But the old man considered himself fortunate. He had a good life, and never really gave much thought to what was missing.

One morning the old man was greeted with a pleasant surprise. Standing in his kitchen was a young boy, perhaps seven or eight years old. The old man had never seen him before. The boy smiled but said nothing. The old man looked around. His morning breakfast had already been prepared, just as he liked it. He asked the boy’s name. “Kileken,” the boy replied. After some prodding, the boy explained that, before preparing breakfast, he had completed all of the old man’s work for the day. Incredulous, the old man stepped outside. Indeed, the fields had been tilled, the animals tended, and the water gathered. Astonishment written all over his face, the old man staggered back into the kitchen. “How did this happen? And how can I repay you?” The boy smiled again, this time dismissively. “I will accept no payment. All I ask is that you let me stay with you.” The old man knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Kileken and the old man soon became inseparable, and the farm grew lush and bountiful as it never had before. The old man could hardly remember what life was like before the arrival of his young comrade. There could be no doubt: With Kileken’s mysterious assistance, the old man was prospering. But he never quite understood why, or how, it had happened.

To an extent we have failed to fully acknowledge, decision-making algorithms have become our society’s collective Kileken. They show up unannounced and where we least expect them, promise and often deliver great things, and quickly come to be seen as indispensable. Their reach can’t be overestimated. They tell traders what stocks to buy and sell, determine how much our car insurance costs, influence which products Amazon shows us and how much we get charged for them, and interpret our Google searches and rank their results....

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Tafari Mbadiwe is a lawyer and doctor. His writing is collected at ThereAreNoFours.com.

Tafari Mbadiwe, "Algorithmic Injustice," The New Atlantis, Number 54, Winter 2018, pp. 3-28.