Algocracy: Outsourcing Governance to Algorithms

by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

AlgorithmIn the late 17th century Gottfried Leibniz conceived of a machine that could be used to settle arguments so that instead of arguing people will just settle dispute by saying “let us calculate.” On closer inspection this idea has an uncanny resemblance to deciding disputes by delegating the decisions to algorithms. This is no longer the realm of Science Fiction as not only do algorithms already make decision on our behalf but they also make biased decisions on our behalf. Welcome to the world of Algocracy, which refers to a system of governance based on rule by algorithms.

The problem of Algocracy has been brought to the fore recently when reporters from ProPublica did an investigative analysis of a prisoner scoring software and determined that it was negatively biased towards black people. Consider two people, one black and the other one white, given the same criminal record, a commercial tool called COMPAS employed by law-enforcement agencies, would give a higher risk score for the black person. This would result in tougher convictions and longer sentences for Black people. ProPublica found a large number of examples where the non-black person with a lower risk score went on to commit more crimes but the black person did not commit any crime. Even Eric Holder weighed in on this debate by cautioning that such scoring systems are biasing the system against certain minority groups. One of the implications here is that algorithms already have much say in how our society is run. Given the proliferation of big data the role of algorithmic governance is only going to get bigger not smaller. We are already living under an Algocracy, its just that it is not evenly distributed yet.

Where does the allure of Algocracy come from? What Algocracy offers us is an “opportunity” to absolve us of moral responsibility by outsourcing it to machines, a point raised multiple times by the Philosopher Evan Selinger.

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