Are the robots our perfect bureaucrats?
Theoretically, it should be the perfect job for a digital robot.
Elderly citizens who apply for a safety alarm is a routine case in any social service office. The process of decision-making is simple; few elderly ask for an alarm without needing one and hardly any applications are rejected. So, if you are in charge of the local authority and aim to turn over some adequate paperwork to algorithms, why not start with exactly this?
The software is already in place to create digital robots that resemble human administrators. They can open e-mails, generate Excel files, upload data, check claims against regulations and finally come to the perfectly rational decision wether to approve the safety alarm application or not.
Indeed, many automation projects of this kind are launched across the country. As a researcher I’ve had the opportunity to monitor one of them closely, which has opened my eyes for some intriguing consequences.
In every pursuit of robotization there is pledge of efficiency. A computer gets a job done in no time, works 24 hours a day and makes incorruptibly fair and square decisions. But in my interviews with administrators another reality also unfolds.
When an elderly person calls and asks for a safety alarm, it is usually their first encounter with the social service. For many it is a crossroad and a moment when they realise they can no longer live fully autonomous lives.
Administrators who keep asking more questions may disclose living conditions that are destructive. Someone has not eaten in five days. Another one desperately needs cleaning service or support from a Women’s House.
Indeed, human brains work more slowly than artificial intelligence, but they do have other merits, namely a social intelligence and more profound virtues. For many elderly, the alarm issue tend to be the first natural contact with the municipality. If all such simple matters are handled by robots, we may end up spending many more man hours in outreach programmes.
Perhaps the little issue, seemingly fitting so well in the hands of a robot, wasn’t that simple after all. And maybe the obvious efficiency gain wasn’t so evident. If so, digitalisation may create new pipelines and red tape.
If 19th century philosopher Max Weber was around today, he would probably have knighted the algorithm as the perfect bureaucrat. It will always follow rules and protocols to the letter and make perfectly rational decisions, which is supposed to emancipate human beings to go with their dreams and work less bureaucratically, spending their time in more useful ways.
We like to perceive modern digital technology as neutral, as opposed to us humans with all our flaws and biases. But as a worst case scenario, automatization actually threatens to create a more bureaucratic society that is extremely rule-based, inflexible and hard for citizens to challenge.
Viewed from inside the social service, a safety alarm application is an undramatic routine case. But for the citizen in question it’s no trifle; it’s a crucial event. Applying for elderly care is not trivial. It can be a milestone in life and a signal of having reached old age for real, which can evoke many feelings.
Thus we cannot define technology’s tilt against effectiveness, speed and standard procedures as a completely neutral approach. The end point, the authoritative decision, is not always what we need to fear most when we adapt to robotization. Rather, the starting point, the first encounter between the citizen and the administration, may be the very moment we cannot afford to waste.