In search of the unfairness gremlin

26 Sept 2023

LMU professor Christoph Kern combines know-how from the worlds of social science and information technology. He investigates the fairness of automated decision-making approaches and whether they disadvantage certain groups of people.

Yes or no? Some decisions can change lives. So what are the fairness implications when such decisions are automated? Christoph Kern, Junior Professor of Social Data Science and Statistical Learning, studies automated decision-making processes that involve machine learning. Examples from other countries show how problematic such approaches can be. This is all the more concerning when we consider that these methods have even been used in the justice system in the United States. And yet ADM (automated decision-making) is being used in Europe in areas such as the administration of unemployment assistance. By means of profiling models, software automatically divides jobseekers into specific risk classes – depending on their risk of becoming long-term unemployed. The idea behind this is to give people optimal support and target measures appropriately. There is a risk, however, that these policies can have undesired or even unjust consequences.

Professor Christoph Kern

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This is precisely where the research of Christoph Kern comes in, which takes an empirical approach to the problem. Kern investigates which automated decision-making models already exist and tests how well they work for certain groups of people and whether they produce prediction errors. He has found that the interface between theory and practice still leaves a lot to be desired: “There’s a big gap between what’s possible and the models that are being used. There is much left to improve in this regard.”
Christoph Kern is both a social scientist and an expert in machine learning. Having studied sociology as an undergraduate, he went on to do a doctorate at the University of Duisburg-Essen, which he completed in 2016 with a dissertation on regional job market mobility. Initially interested in how machine learning methods could be used in social science research, he began to study how the techniques could be used in the “real world” and what problems could be associated with that.

A vibrant, open atmosphere with great scope for interaction

After obtaining his doctorate, Christoph Kern worked as a research associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Mannheim from 2017 to 2022, while also working as a project manager at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES) since 2020. During these years, he undertook several research residencies in the United States – at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, and the University of Maryland, with which Kern is still affiliated. Since October 2020, Kern has been at LMU, first as an interim professor and since September 2022 as a junior professor.

Christoph Kern’s professorship is located in the Department of Statistics. He says he’s still finding his feet in some respects, owing to the plethora of new possibilities there for his research: “It’s great that LMU has such a large and excellent statistics institute with distinguished academics who are engaged with machine learning. There’s a vibrant, open atmosphere with great scope for interaction.”

Christoph Kern is committed to pursuing collaborations across disciplinary boundaries. “On questions relating to fairness in machine learning, interdisciplinary cooperation is very important. We need a broad range of perspectives – from philosophy to computer science.”

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