Aleatoric and Epistemic Discrimination: Fundamental Limits of Fairness Interventions

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Hao Wang, Luxi He, Rui Gao, Flavio Calmon


Machine learning (ML) models can underperform on certain population groups due to choices made during model development and bias inherent in the data. We categorize sources of discrimination in the ML pipeline into two classes: aleatoric discrimination, which is inherent in the data distribution, and epistemic discrimination, which is due to decisions made during model development. We quantify aleatoric discrimination by determining the performance limits of a model under fairness constraints, assuming perfect knowledge of the data distribution. We demonstrate how to characterize aleatoric discrimination by applying Blackwell's results on comparing statistical experiments. We then quantify epistemic discrimination as the gap between a model's accuracy when fairness constraints are applied and the limit posed by aleatoric discrimination. We apply this approach to benchmark existing fairness interventions and investigate fairness risks in data with missing values. Our results indicate that state-of-the-art fairness interventions are effective at removing epistemic discrimination on standard (overused) tabular datasets. However, when data has missing values, there is still significant room for improvement in handling aleatoric discrimination.