Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Microsoft unveils AI to detect government corruption

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Microsoft unveiled an initiative to use artificial intelligence to detect government corruption, calling it “an urgent global issue that can and must be solved.”

The new Microsoft Anti-Corruption Technology and Solutions initiative “will leverage the company’s investments in cloud computing, data visualization, AI, machine learning, and other emerging technologies to enhance transparency and to detect and deter corruption” over the next decade, said Dev Stahlkopf, Microsoft general counsel, in a post announcing the plan.

Microsoft made the announcement in conjunction with the United Nations’ International Anti-Corruption Day. Stahlkopf described the initiative as increasingly important given the events of the past year.

“Governments around the world are scrambling to address the Covid-19 pandemic – speeding to implement measures to address the health emergency and to provide resources for those hardest hit by the resulting economic downturn,” Stahlkopf wrote. “These unprecedented investments, however, have exposed vulnerabilities in supply chains, procurement processes, and corruption controls.”

The concept of using AI to detect and prevent corruption has been getting increased attention in recent years in government circles. Microsoft has worked on related projects in the past, including a partnership with the World Bank to analyze data to detect suspicious patterns in bidding for contracts.

Agencies in countries including Brazil and Ukraine have piloted machine learning and AI programs to detect corruption, but the practice is not yet widespread, according to a report last year by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre.

However, the use of AI also brings inherent risk, the report warned.

“Unwanted side-effects of such decision-making systems may stem from bias in the data used to train the AI or in the design of an algorithm,” the report said. “Opaque algorithms and thereby opaque decision-making systems represent a challenge known as the black box problem. The right to explanation requires transparent design of algorithms or methodologies able to test or contest decisions.”

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The report called out the importance of following ethical principles of AI to keep the systems from going awry. Microsoft, which competes against cloud giants Amazon and Google in the development of AI technologies, has its own internal AI ethics office and committee to hold the company to its principles of responsible AI. 

But controls can be difficult to enforce once technology is out in the wild. This was evidenced by a high-profile incident in which a Microsoft partner, Israeli startup AnyVision, was reported to have used its facial recognition technology in a secret military surveillance project monitoring Palestinians in the West Bank, prompting the Redmond company to commission an investigation and ultimately divest its stake in the startup.

Microsoft has not been immune to this issue, paying $25 million last year to settle corruption charges over alleged bribery schemes in its offices in Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Turkey.

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