The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Yair Zick Joins College of Information and Computer Sciences

Yair Zick joined the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) as an assistant professor last month, after four years as an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. He was interested in joining UMass CICS because he found a group of faculty members already working on topics that he cares about, namely EQUATE (Equity, Accountability, Trust, and Explainability). One of Zick’s research interests is algorithmic fairness, particularly the allocation of public resources. For example, how a municipality assigns slots to multiple kindergarten programs in a way that is fair and reasonable, and results in positive outcomes for families. A “fair” way would be to assign slots completely at random (i.e. coin toss or lottery). But this method might not be optimal if, for example, family A would prefer the kindergarten that family B was assigned because it’s closer to home, and family B would prefer the kindergarten that family A was assigned because it’s closer to work. 


“So the question is, how do we design fair allocation systems while maintaining other quality guarantees?” says Zick. “How do we balance social objectives?” Zick’s approach includes defining social criteria with stakeholders to achieve “envy freeness,” meaning when each stakeholder likes their result more than another stakeholder’s.


Another focus area for Zick is transparency. As algorithms have become more complex and higher stakes, they have become more difficult to explain. Denials are easy to explain for a simple loan-application algorithm, that only involves a few factors, such as bank account balance, number of credit cards, and credit rate. But it’s very difficult to explain decisions made by a large and complicated neural network with several layers. As algorithms are applied to more high-stakes decisions, such as medical diagnoses and autonomous vehicles, it becomes more important to be able to explain why they behave the way they do. Zick takes a rigorous approach in defining desired properties of a formal model explanation, and then to derive explanations to satisfy those properties.


When he’s not working, Zick likes to enjoy the outdoors with his family -- in fact the natural beauty of the Pioneer Valley is another reason he was drawn to UMass. He also enjoys practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a self-defense martial art and combat sport.