guest column

Here's what Houston employers need to know about using artificial intelligence in the hiring process

In a guest column, these lawyers explain the pros and cons of using AI for hiring. Photo via Getty Images

Workplace automation has entered the human resource department. Companies rely increasingly on artificial intelligence to source, interview, and hire job applicants. These AI tools are marketed to save time, improve the quality of a workforce, and eliminate unlawful hiring biases. But is AI incapable of hiring discrimination? Can a company escape liability for discriminatory hiring because, "the computer did it?"

Ultimately, whether AI is a solution or a landmine depends on how carefully companies implement the technology. AI is not immune from discrimination and federal law holds companies accountable for their hiring decisions, even if those decisions were made in a black server cabinet. The technology can mitigate bias, but only if used properly and monitored closely.

Available AI tools

The landscape of AI technology is continually growing and covers all portions of the hiring process — recruiting, interviewing, selection, and onboarding. Some companies use automated candidate sourcing technology to search social media profiles to determine which job postings should be advertised to particular candidates. Others use complex algorithms to determine which candidates' resumes best match the requirements of open positions. And some employers use video interview software to analyze facial expressions, body language, and tone to assess whether a candidate exhibits preferred traits.

Federal anti-discrimination law

Although AI tools likely have no intent to unlawfully discriminate, that does not absolve them from liability. This is because the law contemplates both intentional discrimination (disparate treatment) as well as unintentional discrimination (disparate impact). The larger risk for AI lies with disparate impact claims. In such lawsuits, intent is irrelevant. The question is whether a facially neutral policy or practice (e.g., use of an AI tool) has a disparate impact on a particular protected group, such as on one's race, color, national origin, gender, or religion.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency in charge of enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, has demonstrated an interest in AI and has indicated that such technology is not an excuse for discriminatory impacts.

Discrimination associated with AI tools

The diversity of AI tools means that each type of technology presents unique potential for discrimination. One common thread, however, is the potential for input data to create a discriminatory impact. Many algorithms rely on a set of inputs to understand search parameters. For example, a resume screening tool is often set up by uploading sample resumes of high-performing employees. If those resumes favor a particular race or gender, and the tool is instructed to find comparable resumes, then the technology will likely reinforce the existing homogeneity.

Some examples are less obvious. Sample resumes may include employees from certain zip codes that are home to predominately one race or color. An AI tool may favor those zip codes, disfavoring applicants from other zip codes of different racial composition. Older candidates may be disfavored by an algorithm's preference for ".edu" email addresses. In short, if a workforce is largely comprised of one race or one gender, having the tool rely on past hiring decisions could negatively impact applicants of another race or gender.

Steps to mitigate risk

There are a handful of steps that employers can take to use these technologies and remain compliant with anti-discrimination laws.

First, companies should demand that AI vendors disclose as much as possible about how their products work. Vendors may be reticent to disclose details about proprietary information, but employers will ultimately be responsible for discriminatory impacts. Thus, as part of contract negotiations, a company should consider seeking indemnification from the vendor for discrimination claims.

Second, companies should consider auditing the tool to ensure it does not yield a disparate impact on protected individuals. Along the same lines, companies should be careful in selecting input data. If the inputs reflect a diverse workforce, a properly functioning algorithm should, in theory, replicate that diversity.

Third, employers should stay abreast of developments in the law. This is an emerging field and state legislators have taken notice. Illinois recently passed regulation governing the use of AI in the workplace and other states, including New York, have introduced similar bills.

AI can solve many hiring challenges and help cultivate a more diverse and qualified workforce. But the tools are often only as unbiased as the creators and users of that technology. Careful implementation will ensure AI becomes a discrimination solution — not a landmine.

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Kevin White is a partner and Dan Butler is an associate with Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, which has an office in Houston.

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A Rice research team is tapping into materials science to better understand Alzheimer’s disease, a UH professor is developing a treatment for hereditary vision loss, and a BCM researcher is looking at stress and brain cancer. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

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