Disembodied Machine Learning: On the Illusion of Objectivity in NLP

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Machine Learning (ML) seeks to identify and encode bodies of knowledge within provided datasets. However, data encodes subjective content, which determines the possible outcomes of the models trained on it. Because such subjectivity potentially enables marginalisation of parts of society, it is termed (social) `bias' and sought to be removed. In this opinion paper, we contextualise this discourse of bias in the ML community against the subjective choices in the development process. Through a consideration of how choices in data and model development construct subjectivity, or biases that are represented in a model, we argue that addressing and mitigating biases is near-impossible. This is because both data and ML models are objects for which meaning is made in each step of the development pipeline, from data selection over annotation to model training and analysis. Accordingly, we find the prevalent discourse of bias limiting in its ability to address social marginalisation. We recommend to be conscientious of this, and to accept that de-biasing methods only correct for a fraction of biases.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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