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Deleting unethical data sets isn’t good enough

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Deleting unethical data sets isn’t good enough


The researchers’ analysis also suggests that Labeled Faces in the Wild (LFW), a data set introduced in 2007 and the first to use face images scraped from the internet, has morphed multiple times through nearly 15 years of use. Whereas it began as a resource for evaluating research-only facial recognition models, it’s now used almost exclusively to evaluate systems meant for use in the real world. This is despite a warning label on the data set’s website that cautions against such use.

More recently, the data set was repurposed in a derivative called SMFRD, which added face masks to each of the images to advance facial recognition during the pandemic. The authors note that this could raise new ethical challenges. Privacy advocates have criticized such applications for fueling surveillance, for example—and especially for enabling government identification of masked protestors.

“This is a really important paper, because people’s eyes have not generally been open to the complexities, and potential harms and risks, of data sets,” says Margaret Mitchell, an AI ethics researcher and a leader in responsible data practices, who was not involved in the study.

For a long time, the culture within the AI community has been to assume that data exists to be used, she adds. This paper shows how that can lead to problems down the line. “It’s really important to think through the various values that a data set encodes, as well as the values that having a data set available encodes,” she says.

A fix

The study authors provide several recommendations for the AI community moving forward. First, creators should communicate more clearly about the intended use of their data sets, both through licenses and through detailed documentation. They should also place harder limits on access to their data, perhaps by requiring researchers to sign terms of agreement or asking them to fill out an application, especially if they intend to construct a derivative data set.

Second, research conferences should establish norms about how data should be collected, labeled, and used, and they should create incentives for responsible data set creation. NeurIPS, the largest AI research conference, already includes a checklist of best practices and ethical guidelines.

Mitchell suggests taking it even further. As part of the BigScience project, a collaboration among AI researchers to develop an AI model that can parse and generate natural language under a rigorous standard of ethics, she’s been experimenting with the idea of creating data set stewardship organizations—teams of people that not only handle the curation, maintenance, and use of the data but also work with lawyers, activists, and the general public to make sure it complies with legal standards, is collected only with consent, and can be removed if someone chooses to withdraw personal information. Such stewardship organizations wouldn’t be necessary for all data sets—but certainly for scraped data that could contain biometric or personally identifiable information or intellectual property.

“Data set collection and monitoring isn’t a one-off task for one or two people,” she says. “If you’re doing this responsibly, it breaks down into a ton of different tasks that require deep thinking, deep expertise, and a variety of different people.”

In recent years, the field has increasingly moved toward the belief that more carefully curated data sets will be key to overcoming many of the industry’s technical and ethical challenges. It’s now clear that constructing more responsible data sets isn’t nearly enough. Those working in AI must also make a long-term commitment to maintaining them and using them ethically.

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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