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Inherent Tradeoffs in Learning Fair Representations

Han Zhao, Geoffrey J. Gordon; 23(57):1−26, 2022.


Real-world applications of machine learning tools in high-stakes domains are often regulated to be fair, in the sense that the predicted target should satisfy some quantitative notion of parity with respect to a protected attribute. However, the exact tradeoff between fairness and accuracy is not entirely clear, even for the basic paradigm of classification problems. In this paper, we characterize an inherent tradeoff between statistical parity and accuracy in the classification setting by providing a lower bound on the sum of group-wise errors of any fair classifiers. Our impossibility theorem could be interpreted as a certain uncertainty principle in fairness: if the base rates differ among groups, then any fair classifier satisfying statistical parity has to incur a large error on at least one of the groups. We further extend this result to give a lower bound on the joint error of any (approximately) fair classifiers, from the perspective of learning fair representations. To show that our lower bound is tight, assuming oracle access to Bayes (potentially unfair) classifiers, we also construct an algorithm that returns a randomized classifier which is both optimal (in terms of accuracy) and fair. Interestingly, when the protected attribute can take more than two values, an extension of this lower bound does not admit an analytic solution. Nevertheless, in this case, we show that the lower bound can be efficiently computed by solving a linear program, which we term as the TV-Barycenter problem, a barycenter problem under the TV-distance. On the upside, we prove that if the group-wise Bayes optimal classifiers are close, then learning fair representations leads to an alternative notion of fairness, known as the accuracy parity, which states that the error rates are close between groups. Finally, we also conduct experiments on real-world datasets to confirm our theoretical findings.

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