Preventing Fairness Gerrymandering: Auditing and Learning for Subgroup Fairness


Michael Kearns, Seth Neel, Aaron Roth, Zhiwei Steven Wu ;
Proceedings of the 35th International Conference on Machine Learning, PMLR 80:2564-2572, 2018.


The most prevalent notions of fairness in machine learning fix a small collection of pre-defined groups (such as race or gender), and then ask for approximate parity of some statistic of the classifier (such as false positive rate) across these groups. Constraints of this form are susceptible to fairness gerrymandering, in which a classifier is fair on each individual group, but badly violates the fairness constraint on structured subgroups, such as certain combinations of protected attribute values. We thus consider fairness across exponentially or infinitely many subgroups, defined by a structured class of functions over the protected attributes. We first prove that the problem of auditing subgroup fairness for both equality of false positive rates and statistical parity is computationally equivalent to the problem of weak agnostic learning — which means it is hard in the worst case, even for simple structured subclasses. However, it also suggests that common heuristics for learning can be applied to successfully solve the auditing problem in practice. We then derive an algorithm that provably converges in a polynomial number of steps to the best subgroup-fair distribution over classifiers, given access to an oracle which can solve the agnostic learning problem. The algorithm is based on a formulation of subgroup fairness as a zero-sum game between a Learner (the primal player) and an Auditor (the dual player). We implement a variant of this algorithm using heuristic oracles, and show that we can effectively both audit and learn fair classifiers on a real dataset.

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