Computer scientists are struggling to purge bias from one of AI’s most important datasets.

What’s new: ImageNet’s 14 million photos are a go-to collection for training computer-vision systems, yet their descriptive labels have been rife with derogatory and stereotyped attitudes toward race, gender, and sex. Researchers replaced a slew of biased labels and are working on further upgrades, according to Wired. (To be clear, the ImageNet Challenge training set is a subset of 1.2 million images and 1,000 classes.)

How it works: Scientists at Princeton and Stanford, including Fei-Fei Li, who built the first version of ImageNet a decade ago, are updating both the dataset and its website.

  • ImageNet’s labels were based on WordNet, a 1980s-era database of word relations. ImageNet’s compilers took WordNet as it was, despite changes in social standards since it was compiled. To weed out slurs and other offensive labels, the Princeton-Stanford team combed through the 2,832 descriptions in ImageNet’s <person> category. They cut nearly 60 percent of <person> labels.
  • ImageNet’s original army of freelance labelers also often tagged photos with subjective labels. A person standing in a doorway, for instance, might be labelled host. To clean up the data, the Princeton-Stanford researchers rated words on how easy they were to visualize. They removed low-scoring words in the <person> subtree, eliminating nearly 90 percent of the remaining labels.
  • The researchers are working to address general lack of diversity in ImageNet labels. First, they labeled people featured in ImageNet according to perceived sex, skin color, and age. Correlating these demographic identifiers with image labels like programmer or nurse, the researchers found the labels were badly skewed toward particular groups. They propose automatically balancing the diversity of images in each category. The number of images tagged both female and nurse, for instance, would be reduced until it matched those tagged male and nurse.
  • A website update will add a button to report offensive images or labels. The researchers are developing a protocol for responding to reported issues.

Behind the news: Late last year, a web app called ImageNet Roulette briefly enabled the public to experience the dataset’s biases firsthand. Users could upload images, and an ImageNet-trained model would classify any faces. The app went viral after users posted on social media selfies tagging them as criminals or racial and gender stereotypes.

Why it matters: ImageNet can be used to pretrain vision models for sensitive applications like vetting job applicants and fighting crime. It is well established that biases in training data can be amplified when a model encounters real-world conditions.

We’re thinking:
Bias in AI has been widely discussed for years. It’s surprising that these issues in ImageNet only now are becoming widely recognized —a sign that greater education in bias should be a priority for the AI community. If such biases exist even in ImageNet, they surely exist in many more datasets.


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