Prem Natarajan, Alexa AI vice president of natural understanding, giving a presentation
Prem Natarajan, Alexa AI vice president of natural understanding
Credit: Micron Technology, Inc.

3 questions: Prem Natarajan on issues of AI fairness and bias

Alexa AI vice president of natural understanding Prem Natarajan discusses the upcoming cycle for the National Science Foundation collaboration on fairness in AI, his participation on the Partnership on AI board, and issues related to bias in natural language processing.

A year ago, Amazon and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a $20 million collaboration to fund academic research on fairness in AI over a three-year period. Recently, Erwin Gianchandani, deputy assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at NSF, discussed the work of the first ten recipients of the program’s grants. Here, Prem Natarajan, Alexa AI vice president of natural understanding, and the Amazon executive who helped launch the collaboration with NSF, discusses the next cycle of upcoming proposals from academic researchers, his work with the Partnership on AI, and what can be done to address bias in natural language processing models.

The 2020 award cycle for the Fairness in AI program in conjunction with the NSF recently launched. Full proposals are due by July 13th. What are you hoping to see in the next round of proposals?

We collaborated with the NSF to launch the Fairness in AI program with the goal of promoting academic research in this important aspect of AI. Our primary objective for engaging with academia on issues related to fairness and transparency in AI is to get many different and diverse perspectives focused on the challenge. The teams selected by NSF in the first round are addressing a variety of topics – from principled frameworks for developing and certifying fair AI, to domain-focused applications such as fair recommender systems for foster care services. To that end, I hope that the second round will build upon the success of the first round by bringing an even greater diversity of perspectives on definitions and perceptions of fairness. Without such diversity the entire field of research into fair AI will become a self-defeating exercise.

Another hope I have for the second round, and indeed for all rounds of this program, is that it will drive the creation of a portfolio of open-source artifacts – such as data sets, metrics, tools, and testing methodologies – which all stakeholders in AI can use to promote the use of fair AI. Such readily available artifacts will make it easier for the community to learn from one another, promote the replication of research results, and, ultimately, advance the state of the art more rapidly. Put differently, we hope that open access to the research under this program will form a rising tide that lifts all boats. It also seems natural that methodologies for fairness will benefit from broad and inclusive discussion across relevant academic and scientific communities.

The deadline for this next round of proposal submissions is July 13th. We hope that the response to this round will be even stronger than for the first. NSF selects the recipients, and I am sure NSF’s reviewers are looking forward to a summer of interesting reading!

You are Amazon’s representative on the Partnership on AI (PAI) board of directors. This unique organization has thematic pillars related to safety-critical AI; fair, transparent and accountable AI; AI labor and the economy; collaborations between AI systems and people; social and societal influences of AI; and AI and social good. It’s an ambitious, broad agenda. You’re fairly new in your role with PAI; what most excites you about the work being done there?

The most exciting aspect of the Partnership on AI is that it is a unique multi-sector forum where I get to listen to and learn from the incredible diversity of perspectives – from industry, academia, non-profits, and social justice groups. PAI today counts amongst its members about 59 non-profits, 24 academic institutions, and 18 industrial organizations. While I joined the board just a few months ago, I have already attended several meetings and participated in discussions with other PAI members as well as PAI staff. While every member has their own unique perspective on AI, it’s been really interesting and encouraging to see that we all share the same values and many of the same concerns. It should be of no surprise that the issue of equity is top of mind with a concomitant focus on fairness considerations.

Alexa & Friends Twitch show features Prem Natarajan

Earlier this month, Alexa evangelist Jeff Blankenburg interviewed Prem Natarajan live on the 'Alexa & Friends' Twitch show. In the video, they discuss recent advances in natural understanding , and how those advancements translate into better experiences for customers, developers and third-party device manufacturers.

From a technical perspective, I am excited by the number and quality of research initiatives underway at PAI. Many of these initiatives are of critical importance to the future development of the field of AI. Let me give you a couple of examples.

One is the area of fairness, accountability and transparency. There are several projects underway in this area, but I will mention one that to me exemplifies the kind of work that an organization like PAI can do. PAI researchers interviewed practitioners at twenty different organizations and performed an in-depth case study of how explainable AI is used today. This kind of research is very important to AI practitioners because it gives them a referential basis to assess their own work and to identify useful areas for future contributions.

Another example is ABOUT ML, which is focused on developing and sharing best practices as well as on advancing public understanding of AI. A couple of years ago some researchers had proposed the development of an AI model scorecard, along the lines of the nutritional information you get on the back of most food items we buy today. The scorecard would describe the attributes of the data used to train the models, the way in which it was tested, etc. The motivation behind the scorecard is to give other developers or model builders a sense of the strengths and limitations of the model, so they can better estimate and address potential weaknesses in the model for their target use cases. ABOUT ML goes well beyond such a scorecard, focusing on documentation, provenance of data and code artifacts, and other critical attributes of the model development process. Ultimately, only multisector organizations like PAI can successfully drive this kind of initiative, bringing together people across organizations and sectors.

Lastly, there’s an education role that PAI serves that I believe is unique, serving as the bridge between AI technologists and other stakeholders within society, making sure AI technologists are appropriately factoring in the perspectives and concerns of the other stakeholders within society. Some examples here include PAI’s collaborative work with First Draft, a PAI Partner, to help technologists and journalists at digital platforms address growing issues around manipulated media. PAI also helps those stakeholders understand more about how AI technology works, its strengths and its limitations.

You oversee Alexa’s natural understanding team. Natural language processing models have drawn criticism for capturing common social biases with respect to gender and race. A large body of work is emerging related to bias in word embedding and classifiers, and there are many proposals for countermeasures. Can you describe the challenge of bias in NLP models, and give us insight into some of the countermeasures you think are, or could be, effective?

A word embedding is a vector of real numbers representing that word; the core idea is that words with similar meanings map to vectors that are “close” to each other. Word embeddings have become a central feature of modern NLP. While embeddings can be computed using a variety of different techniques, deep learning techniques have proven to be tremendously effective at numerically representing the semantics of a word and concepts, etc. Today, deep learning based embeddings are used for all kinds of processing, from named entity recognition, to question answering, and natural language generation. As a result, the semantics that these embeddings encode greatly influence how we interpret text, the accuracy of those interpretations, and the actions we take in response to those interpretations.

Bias can also manifest in other ways because any system that is based on data can exhibit a majoritarian bias to it.
Prem Natarajan, Alexa AI VP of natural understanding

As word embeddings became prevalent, researchers naturally started looking into their fragilities and shortcomings. One of those fragilities is that the embeddings derive and encode meaning from context, which means that the meaning of a word is largely controlled by the different contexts in which that word is observed in the training data. While that seems like a reasonable basis for inferring meaning, it leads to undesirable consequences. My friend Kai-Wei Chang at UCLA is one of the early investigators of bias in NLP and he uses the following example: take the vector for doctor and you subtract the vector for man; when you add the vector for woman, you should in principle get the vector for doctor again, or a female doctor. But instead the resulting vector is close to the vector for ‘nurse.’ What this example shows is that the latent biases in human-generated text get encoded into the embeddings. One example of a system that is affected by these biases is natural language generation. Many studies have shown that such biases can result in the generation of text that exhibits the same biases and prejudices as humans, sometimes in an amplified manner. Left unmitigated, such systems could reinforce human biases and stereotypes.

Bias can also manifest in other ways because any system that is based on data can exhibit a majoritarian bias to it. So, for example, different groups in different parts of the world may speak the same language with different dialects, but the most frequent dialect will likely see the best performance only because it forms the major proportion of the training data. But we don’t want dialect or accent to determine how well the system will work for an individual. We want our systems to work equally well for everyone, regardless of geography, dialect, gender, or any other irrelevant factor.

Methodologically, we counter the impact of bias by using a principled approach to characterize the dimensions of bias and associated impact, and by developing techniques that are robust to these biasing factors. For example, it stands to reason that speech recognition systems should ignore parts of the signal that are not useful for recognizing the words that were spoken. It shouldn’t really matter whether the voice is male or female, only the actual words should. Similarly for natural language understanding, we want to be able to understand the queries of different groups of people regardless of the stylistic or syntactic variations of the language used. Scientists at Amazon and elsewhere are exploring a broad variety of approaches such as de-biasing techniques, adversarial invariance, active learning, and selective sampling. Personally, I find the adversarial approaches to both testing and to generating bias or nuisance invariant representations most appealing because of their scalability, but in the next few years, we will all find out what works best for different problems!

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The Alexa Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) science team in India is rapidly growing. The team is responsible for advancing Alexa’s core ASR technology (in collaboration with the EU and US counterparts) and building highly accurate ASR production models in multiple languages, such as English dialects (UK, AU, NZ, IN) and Indic (Hindi etc.) languages.The challenge is ASR models must generalize to various device form factors (smart speaker, multi-media devices, etc.), acoustic conditions (far-field, close-talk, mobile, and noisy), and content (natural conversations etc.). As part of the expansion, the team will be responsible for complex ML technologies such as (i) learning without relying on human transcribed data by leveraging abundant unlabelled data via semi-supervised learning (SSL) and self-supervised learning, and customer feedback signals through weak-supervision (WS) (ii) Online Learning and Lifelong Learning, which requires a major overhaul of the learning infrastructure and ML algorithms as data will not be stored for training (iii) Privacy-preserving Federated-Learning, which enables training where audio does not even leave the devices. (iv) multilingual ASR technology, where a single ASR model will serve multiple languages (e.g., Indic languages). Apart from working on cutting-edge ML technology, you will have the opportunity to work on some exciting still confidential new products and also publish your work in top-tier conferences.We are looking to hire Applied Scientists, Senior Applied Scientists and Applied Science Managers, at all levels. For Applied Science roles, Masters or PhD with solid understanding of Machine Learning (ML), Algorithms and Coding is a minimum requirement. Prior experience in ML projects and publications in top-tier conferences are preferred. If you are interested, please apply below.
CA, ON, Toronto
Job summaryThe Sponsored Display Advertising team has an opening for an outstanding ML scientist who is passionate about applying advanced ML and statistical techniques to solve real-world challenges. Amazon's Sponsored Display Advertising program serves millions of personalized Ads every day. We buy Ad impressions in real-time auctions and algorithmically deliver the most relevant Ad. We delight in data, and are constantly working to enhance and improve our models. We relentlessly optimize to keep delivering the best possible Ads for our customers.You will work in an agile and fast-paced team of scientists and software engineers. The team is building a number of new advertising products, including dynamic video advertising, to improve the range of offerings for our advertisers and provide new Ad experiences for our customers. As a scientist on the team, you can be involved in every aspect of the process - from idea generation, business analysis and scientific research, through to development and deployment of advanced models - giving you a real sense of ownership. The systems that you help to build will operate at massive scale to display ads to customers around the world. From day one, you will be working with experienced scientists, engineers, and designers who love what they do.We are looking for ML scientists who can delight our customers by continually learning and inventing. Our ideal candidate is an experienced ML scientist who has a track-record of performing analysis and applying statistical techniques to solve real business problems, who has great leadership and communication skills, and who is motivated to achieve results in a fast-paced environment. The position offers an exceptional opportunity to grow your technical and non-technical skills and make a real difference to the Amazon Advertising business.Key responsibilities:· Rapidly design, prototype and test many possible hypotheses in a high-ambiguity environment, making use of both quantitative analysis and business judgment.· Collaborate with software engineering teams to integrate successful experimental results into large-scale, highly complex Amazon production systems.· Report results in a manner which is both statistically rigorous and compellingly relevant, exemplifying good scientific practice in a business environment.· Promote the culture of experimentation and applied science at Amazon.
JP, 13, Meguro
Job summary*Please submit English resume when you apply for the job.Sellers are our customers. Our mission is to help every seller grow and succeed on Amazon. Our team invents, test and launches some of the most innovative services, technology and processes for our sellers.Amazon is looking for a talented and passionate hands-on Data Scientist to build world class statistical and machine learning models to understand our sellers, and deliver the right recommendation to help them grow.They’ll be comfortable with ambiguity and enjoy working in a fast-paced, diverse and dynamic environment. The position also requires collaboration with other scientists, engineers, Product and Marketing ManagersThe Data Scientist is accountable for:(1) Deeply understanding the most challenging business questions and use data / modelling / analysis to articulate possible root cause analysis and solutions.(2) Managing and executing entire projects or components of large projects from start to finish including project management, data gathering and manipulation, synthesis and modeling, problem solving, and communication of insights and recommendations.(3) Developing and scaling end-to-end ML Models and solutions(4) Partnering with Other Data scientists and Economists to design and run experiments, research new algorithms, and prove incrementality and drive growth.(5) Understanding drivers, impacts, and key influences on seller growth dynamics.(6) Automating feedback loops for algorithms in production.(7) Utilizing Amazon systems and tools to effectively work with terabytes of data.[Work Life Harmony]We believe, it is important to spend private time such as spending time with your family or doing anything you like to spur innovation. Amazon promotes a fulfilling and flexible work style according to the work volume and lifestyle of each employee. (Example: Flex Time, Work from Home, Maternity /Parenting /Family Care Leave etc.)
US, WA, Seattle
Job summaryThe Sourcing Guidance team is looking for an Applied Scientist to join our team in building science solutions at scale. Our team applies Machine Learning, Reinforcement Learning, Causal Inference, and Econometrics/Economics to derive actionable insights about the complex economy of Amazon’s retail business. We also develop Statistical Models and Algorithms to drive strategic business decisions and improve operations. We are an interdisciplinary team of Economists, Engineers, and Scientists incubating and building day one solutions using cutting-edge technology, to solve some of the toughest business problems at Amazon.You will work with business leaders, scientists, and economists to translate business and functional requirements into concrete deliverables, including the design, development, testing, and deployment of highly scalable ML models. You will partner with scientists, economists, and engineers to help invent and implement scalable ML, RL, and econometric models while building tools to help our customers gain and apply insights. This is a unique, high visibility opportunity for someone who wants to have business impact, dive deep into large-scale economic problems, enable measurable actions on the Consumer economy, and work closely with scientists and economists. We are particularly interested in candidates with experience building predictive models and working with distributed systems.As an Applied Scientist, you bring business and industry context to science and technology decisions. You set the standard for scientific excellence and make decisions that affect the way we build and integrate algorithms. Your solutions are exemplary in terms of algorithm design, clarity, model structure, efficiency, and extensibility. You tackle intrinsically hard problems, acquiring expertise as needed. You decompose complex problems into straightforward solutions.To know more about Amazon science, Please visit
US, CA, San Diego
Job summaryThe Sourcing Guidance team is looking for an Applied Scientist to join our team in building science solutions at scale. Our team applies Machine Learning, Reinforcement Learning, Causal Inference, and Econometrics/Economics to derive actionable insights about the complex economy of Amazon’s retail business. We also develop Statistical Models and Algorithms to drive strategic business decisions and improve operations. We are an interdisciplinary team of Economists, Engineers, and Scientists incubating and building day one solutions using cutting-edge technology, to solve some of the toughest business problems at Amazon.You will work with business leaders, scientists, and economists to translate business and functional requirements into concrete deliverables, including the design, development, testing, and deployment of highly scalable ML models. You will partner with scientists, economists, and engineers to help invent and implement scalable ML, RL, and econometric models while building tools to help our customers gain and apply insights. This is a unique, high visibility opportunity for someone who wants to have business impact, dive deep into large-scale economic problems, enable measurable actions on the Consumer economy, and work closely with scientists and economists. We are particularly interested in candidates with experience building predictive models and working with distributed systems.As an Applied Scientist, you bring business and industry context to science and technology decisions. You set the standard for scientific excellence and make decisions that affect the way we build and integrate algorithms. Your solutions are exemplary in terms of algorithm design, clarity, model structure, efficiency, and extensibility. You tackle intrinsically hard problems, acquiring expertise as needed. You decompose complex problems into straightforward solutions.To know more about Amazon science, Please visit
Job summaryPayments Security team is looking for an Applied Scientist to apply formal verification, program analysis, and constraint-solving to prove the correctness of critical systems. In this role, you will work closely with internal security teams to design and build formal verification systems that continuously assess safety and security. You will build on top of existing formal verification tools developed by AWS and develop new methods to apply those tools at scale. You will need to be innovative, entrepreneurial, and adaptable. We like to move fast, experiment, iterate and then scale quickly, thoughtfully balancing speed and quality.
US, WA, Seattle
Job summaryWe are a team of doers working passionately to apply cutting-edge advances in technology to solve real-world problems. As a Research Scientist, you will work with a unique and gifted team developing exciting products for consumers and collaborate with cross-functional teams. Our team rewards intellectual curiosity while maintaining a laser-focus in bringing products to market. Competitive candidates are responsive, flexible, and able to succeed within an open, collaborative, entrepreneurial, startup-like environment. At the cutting edge of both academic and applied research in this product area, you have the opportunity to work together with some of the most talented scientists, engineers, and product managers.Here at Amazon, we embrace our differences. We are committed to furthering our culture of inclusion. We have ten employee-led affinity groups, reaching 40,000 employees in over 190 chapters globally. We have innovative benefit offerings, and host annual and ongoing learning experiences, including our Conversations on Race and Ethnicity (CORE) and AmazeCon (gender diversity) conferences. Amazon’s culture of inclusion is reinforced within our 14 Leadership Principles, which remind team members to seek diverse perspectives, learn and be curious, and earn trust.Work/life BalanceOur team puts a high value on work-life balance. It isn’t about how many hours you spend at home or at work; it’s about the flow you establish that brings energy to both parts of your life. We believe striking the right balance between your personal and professional life is critical to life-long happiness and fulfillment. We offer flexibility in working hours and encourage you to find your own balance between your work and personal lives.Mentorship & Career GrowthOur team is dedicated to supporting new members. We have a broad mix of experience levels and tenures, and we’re building an environment that celebrates knowledge sharing and mentorship. Our senior members enjoy one-on-one mentoring and thorough, but kind, code reviews. We care about your career growth and strive to assign projects based on what will help each team member develop into a better-rounded engineer and enable them to take on more complex tasks in the future.