Northeastern professor who makes tech company algorithms transparent recognized

Northeastern University has named computer science professor Christo Wilson, associate professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, the recipient of this year’s Excellence in Research and Creative Activity Award. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern computer science professor Christo Wilson wants to make people aware of how algorithms work, while getting the companies that use them to be more open about and accountable for how they work.

Among Wilson’s findings was a glitch in its algorithm of the ride-hailing company Uber that caused some customers to be incorrectly charged higher prices than others, which led Uber to launch a blog to explain how its pricing works.

He disproved the theory that Google’s search engine creates partisan “filter bubbles” in which people only receive search results that reinforce their preexisting biases and beliefs, research President Trump would’ve done well to read before tweeting this.

And he’s uncovered that Amazon and travel websites sometimes feature more prominently products and fares with higher prices than those that present better deals for consumers.

“We live in this world that is permeated by these complex algorithms that we don’t understand,” says Wilson, who is an associate professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern. “Every website, every app—they have huge amounts of data about us, and they use that to shape our experiences. Sometimes this is totally fine. We love it when Netflix recommends cool stuff to us. But in many scenarios these kinds of suggestions can be troubling.”

For his work, Northeastern has named Wilson the recipient of this year’s Excellence in Research and Creative Activity Award. He will be one of several honorees celebrated by President Joseph E. Aoun at Academic Honors Convocation on April 23. The annual ceremony recognizes students and faculty who have received prestigious awards for scholarship, research, or teaching over the past year.

Wilson says he was thrilled by the recognition, which is typically bestowed to a full-time faculty member who demonstrates outstanding research and creative activity of national and international significance.

“There is so much amazing work being done by faculty at Northeastern, to be recognized individually is a true honor,” says Wilson, whose research has been covered by NPR, The Washington Post, BBC News, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal.

Wilson says that his field of study, which is called algorithm auditing, emerged over the past decade, and that its importance will continue to grow.

“My work is centered on critiquing the role of technological systems in society, and I hope that this award will help me to continue raising awareness of these issues, and promote accountability in the tech industry,” he says.

In future research, he plans to study whether the algorithms used by data brokers—which act as middlemen by buying consumer data from one company and selling it to another—derive correct inferences about people. He is also interested in examining the algorithms used by credit scoring agencies, and by YouTube to recommend videos to its users.

Hailing him as an “outstanding young researcher,” Carla Brodley, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, underlined Wilson’s accomplishments in her recommendation letter, namely his research on increasing the transparency of the algorithms used by platforms such as Uber and Amazon by identifying how they may have biased or had a detrimental effect on users.

“Professor Wilson has developed methodologies to study a number of such systems, and his work has had measurable impact through significant visibility both in the research community and in the popular press,” Brodley wrote.

Earlier this year, Wilson received a Sloan Research Fellowship, which recognizes scholars who are early in their careers and whose achievements put them among the most promising researchers in their fields.

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