Robots

Robo-Bureaucrats: Threat or Menace?

The promise and perils of cyber-bureaucracy

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RobotBureaucratDreamstimeKirstyPargeter
Dreamstime: Kirsty Pargeter

Never mind replacing factory and service industry workers: What if robots could replace bureaucrats? After all, nearly 22 million Americans are employed at all levels of government. Lots of them are involved in applying rules and making routine decisions. What if ever-smarter software could function as robo-administrative law judges, robo-comptrollers, robo-clerks, robo-magistrates, robo-deputy assistant secretaries of transportation or agriculture—in short, robo-bureaucrats?

Infotech is already becoming more adept at handling some tasks than human experts are. IBM's Watson cognitive computing system is reportedly better at diagnosing cancer than are physicians, and investors are increasingly trusting the algorithms behind robo-advisers like Betterment and Wealthfront to handle their retirement and other funds. Could robot administrators powered by computer algorithms and neural networks even-handedly apply rules and make objective decisions in allocating resources?

In a recent paper, "Cyberdelegation and the Administrative State," California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar considers the possibility. 

Modern bureaucracies were devised as a fix for the problem of political patronage, also called the spoils system, in which victorious political parties rewarded their supporters with government jobs, contracts, regulatory approvals, and other favors. It didn't work. As public choice theory eventually showed, bureaucrats are far from dispassionate and objective arbiters of the law. Their decisions are distorted by incentives to maximize their budgets and extend the scope of their authority. And while not overtly beholden to politicians, bureaucrats often defer to the goals of the members of key legislative committees.

Bureaucrats, like all human beings, are subject to biases, cognitive failures, and just plain bad days. Yet public sector workers are less accountable than those employed in the private sector. When private-sector workers are incompetent, they are six times more likely to get fired than are federal bureaucrats.

So would robo-bureaucrats do better?

Cuéllar suggests that advanced information technology will make better use of data, enhance transparency, and reduce inconsistency in bureaucratic justice. Nevertheless, he worries that reliance on robot administrators will have subtle unintended consequences that undermine public deliberation and trust in political processes.

Cuéllar initially invites us to "imagine a series of sleek black boxes—capable of sustaining a cogent conversation with an expert, and networked to an elaborate structure of machines, data, and coded instruction sets." He suggests that sophisticated information technologies might be able to duplicate what an human administrator could do at lower cost; that they might also screen out human biases and circumvent faulty mental shortcuts, such as the availability heuristic; and that they may eventually avoid unintended consequences and reduce unknown unknowns by taking into account vaster domains of information. Those sleek black boxes might more reliably than human experts evaluate evidence and issue consistent rulings on Social Security disability claims, EPA hearings on air pollution violations or pipeline spills, and FDA safety assessments of new pharmaceuticals. 

Then again, they might not. As Cuéllar argues, instructing robot bureaucrats how to properly assess and then maximize agency objectives will be hard to implement. To illustrate how such digital expert systems can go awry, Cuéllar cites the example of the automated system that the Department of Veterans Affairs set up to speed the processing of disability benefits applications. Benefit determinations were made faster, but the system was unable to figure out when veterans were exaggerating their ailments. Thus the automated system consistently awarded higher payments than human raters had previously done.

The Veteran Affairs robo-adjudication system highlights another problem: How do you police and maintain the line between automated decision support and fully automated decisions? Cuéllar observes that once the robo-system is set up, their human overseers become disinclined to overturn its determinations even in the face of information that suggests its assessments may be flawed.

So it proved at Veterans Affairs. The Wall Street Journal reports that managers eager to streamline approvals pressured the remaining human benefits-raters to accept the automated decisions. Raters have a strong incentive not to override the program's recommendations, because they are flagged and sent to supervisors, who must then deal with complaints from veterans. Consequently, raters overrode the robo-evaluations in less than 2 percent of the 1.4 million rating decisions they made in 2014. Eventually, officials and clients get used how decisions are made. Ultimately, Cuéllar observes, "Organized interests tend to defend the resulting status quo, and organizations often develop internal political dynamics favoring continuity over change."

Cybersecurity also looms larger as agencies trust more decisions to cognitive supercomputers. The numerous recent data breaches at federal agencies—the Office Personnel Management, the State Department, HealthCare.gov, the government contractors in charge of vetting personnel for security clearances—indicate that the feds' cybersecurity measures remain critically deficient. If hackers enter computer systems that are empowered to issue orders and impose fines, the results would be commensurately worse.

Further down the road, new cognitive technologies may enable robo-bureaucrats to handle greater amounts of information and ideally make better and more subtle decisions. (Think genetic algorithms that evolve over time as they search for optimal solutions, or self-modifying deep learning systems in neural networks.) Cuéllar suggests that as automated systems become more intuitive and their analytical capacities more sophisticated, the black boxes might steadily climb up the bureaucratic ladder, constraining and perhaps displacing supervisors, division heads, and even agency administrators. Cuéllar warns that increasing reliance on such adaptive systems could "complicate public deliberation about administrative decisions, because few if any observers will be entirely capable of understanding how a given decision was reached." Would politicians, officials, and citizens be content to abide by decisions, even if those decisions result in fair outcomes, if they are basically made by robot oracles?

Finally, there is a big difference between robo-advisers and robo-diagnosticians on the one hand and robo-bureaucrats on the other. If patients and investors don't like the decisions made by Betterment or Watson, they can choose to go elsewhere. There is only one Veterans Affairs Department, only one EPA, only one FDA. The decisions made by robot bureaucrats would have the full force of law behind them, including fines, fees, mandates, bans, and possibly jail. At what point does robo-bureaucracy become robo-tyranny?

NEXT: Rick Perry Endorses Cancer for President, Would Be Willing to Accept Position as Cancer's Running Mate

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  1. I am not so sure that making the government more efficient is a good thing. Do we really want the IRS to be more efficient, for example?

    1. Nobody understands the tax code well enough to program a machine that would be capable of making the IRS efficient.

      1. Clearly the solution is to adjust the rules to fit the program’s capabilities:

        If [ $INCOME -gt 0 ] ; then
        let TAX=${INCOME}*0
        else
        Let TAX=0
        fi

        1. This can be simplified with the following code

          int libertarianTax() {
          const int TAX = 0;
          return (TAX);
          }

          1. I reject your choice of languages.

            1. Fine:

              Public Function libertarianTax() as Integer
              CONST TAX = 0
              libertarianTax = TAX
              END FUNCTION

              1. nerds.

      2. From a programmer’s perspective , tax code is criminal code .

    2. The government’s definition of “efficient” is the exact opposite of the private sector’s definition.

    3. Well I would be fine with a more efficient IRS, if they simplified the code to a flat tax and reduced overall taxes. That way the tax cheats that are caught are actually trying committing a crime and not some poor schmo who didn’t understand that he needed to use form 1098Q instead of form 15-b (or what have you).

  2. Will there robots have a union? Because I don’t need to be paying a large number of robots to stand around ignoring people at the DMV when that could easily be done by one robot.

    1. s/there/these/

    2. Look, robot bureaucrats have finely optimized the right number of loitering robot workers that the DMV requires using mathematics you couldn’t comprehend performed at speeds your brain can’t begin to approach.

      Now sit down and quit asking stupid questions… human.

      1. Take an integer and sit down please.

  3. So someone like Preat Sabhara might one day retire and be replaced by something named Beep Star-Hopper? Where is the downside in that?

    The AI girl’s seductive techniques to deceive humans as portrayed in the film Ex Machina, notwithstanding, I would trust a robot over power-mad humans any day.

  4. You forget one thing – the installation and maintenance contracts will go do some crony, so the competence of these installations is already dubious – and they don’t even exist yet.

    My familiarity with government computing leads me to not trust that anything will be implemented properly, either by the in-house staff nor the consultants.

    1. If history repeats itself, the powers that be won’t want anyone to lose their jobs over this- especially someone they might owe favors to. They’d likely assign the person being replaced by the robot to monitor the robot and make sure it does the job right. It could go on like that for decades.

  5. After all, nearly 22 million Americans are employed at all levels of government. Lots of them are involved in applying rules and making routine decisions.

    Based on my experiences, at least 21.999 million of these could be easily replaced with a single Dell running Windows 98.

    in short, robo-bureaucrats?

    Dude, come on. The preferred nomenclature is “robocrats.”

      1. Sorry, Bureauts might be closer to the pronounciation I was going for.

  6. First came the robo-bureaucrats. Then came the robocops.

  7. This would be a really bad idea. Because with Robots, you’d end up with nonsensical decisions made by the regulatory agencies that didn’t take reality into account, which would result in bizzarro application of rules to common, daily activities of ordinary Americans.

    1. Man, wouldn’t THAT suck balls and ass.

      1. It’s a pretty far-fetched theory, I admit, but just imagine a robot bureaucrat declaring your property a Wetland when it isn’t even on a Wetlands map run by the Robot EPA. Not that anything like this would ever happen, but it seems much more likely in a robot-driven bureaucracy.

    2. So just like today, but more expensive.

    3. this of course assume the current bio-bureaucrats take reality into account.

  8. The Robocrat contract will go to the lowest bidder, and each robot will only be able to perform one duty, as opposed to a human performing two or more. Each robot will have one maintainer, who is probably on a union-mandated lunch break for three weeks at a time. The initial cost of each one will seem reasonable, but will quickly balloon to eight times the original estimate and at least six months behind schedule (being optimistic here). Eventually, it will break and just sit at its robo-desk. Once the robo-clerk handling contract renewal breaks, the maintainers go on strike and eventually find work fixing the robo-cashiers at McDonalds. Each robocrat slowly dies a long, rusty, squeaky death until the entire government grinds to a halt.

    Yep, let’s do this.

  9. Wait… isn’t this the plot of the game Paranoia?

    Friend Computer is not amused.

    1. I don’t know about that game, but it is the plot, more or less, to a Borderlands DLC called Claptrap’s Robot Revolution.

      “Viva la Robolution!”

  10. What if ever-smarter software could function as robo-administrative law judges, robo-comptrollers, robo-clerks, robo-magistrates, robo-deputy assistant secretaries of transportation or agriculture?in short, robo-bureaucrats?

    Civil service unions would go to war to prevent this from ever happening.

    1. Sweet, if their cold war against the rest of us goes hot, it’s okay to shoot them!

      Mmmm, dead bureaucrat unions… *drools*

  11. Robo Bureaucrats? I am sure they will be just as helpful as this guy.

  12. Asimov assured me this violates some law he dreamed up.

    1. Those were removed during the implementation phase to simplify the architecture.

  13. Try
    enforce.Law(complex, specious, vague)
    Catch
    whine.Money(moar, moar, moar)

    1. Null pointer exception attempting to execute catch block.

      huh.

  14. It would never work. The number of catch 22’s in the regulations would cause the robocrats to crash on a regular basis at best or turn into HAL when fed conflicting orders. Heck just programing the things would be a nightmare with the programers trying to explain to the bureaucrats the concept of logic.

    1. Of course it won’t work. That is the very definition of success to a bureaucrat.

      1. Wrong.

        The definition of success is “Did my budget go up and did my span of control expand?”

        1. And how is one’s budget going to go up if something works properly?

  15. Our tools have always been extensions of us. Now we are becoming extensions of our own tools.

    1. Tell me more about this “tool” extension business.

  16. While tax < infinity
    tax = tax * 1.1
    End While

  17. It will never work.

    Invisible Finger’s Law says the pace of new legislation exceeds Moore’s Law.

  18. I’d rather put both the fleshy and robo varieties of bureaucrats out of work.

  19. The question is not whether or not a perfectly judicious robo-judge could be designed. The question is whether or not the humans in charge of government would ever adopt it and thereby give up their power to use the vague and confusing laws as a weapon to smash whomever they please.

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  21. As long as all laws are written in code. Congress isn’t allowed to leave for the day until the entire law compiles and passes a set of regression tests. The algorithmic implementation of the Constitution comes first.

    I envision a new limited government amendment that all law compilation must be done on only one single core cpu with a really low max operations per millisecond and a max of 64k of memory.

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  25. Could robot administrators powered by computer algorithms and neural networks even-handedly apply rules and make objective decisions in allocating resources?

    Almost certainly, especially if artificial intelligence ever eventuates. That said, if it is possible to program a robotic system to be even-handed it would also be possible to program it to NOT be even-handed. That is to be biased. To favour one kind of individual or outcome over others.

    If human beings can be biased, so can computing systems. The difference is that it is incredibly easy to introduce such biases into computing systems; and do so in not-easily detected ways.

    That ability to introduce bias, especially subtle, hard-to-detect ones, is one of the arguments against electronic voting systems, especially the blackbox kind where the those who created the system refuse to allow others, including those whose job it is to ensure such systems are NOT biased, access to the details of how those systems work. One the one hand there is the need to guard one’s intellectual property rights, on the other is the need to ensure that the systems truly are fair and balanced.

    A second issue is hacking. All computing systems are potentially hackable, especially those connected to the Internet. Given the prevalence of hacking online and the kinds of jobs robo-bureaucrats will be asked to perform, the temptation to hack the robocrats will be enormous, especially if money are involved.

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