🔬 Research Summary by Mark Alfano, a philosopher at Macquarie University who specializes in ethical and epistemic issues related to computational social science.
Overview: Many things we care most about are modally robust because they systematically deliver correlative benefits across various counterfactual scenarios. We contend that recourse — the systematic capacity to reverse unfavorable decisions by algorithms and bureaucracies — is a modally robust good. In particular, we argue that two essential components of a good life — temporally extended agency and trust — are underwritten by recourse, and we offer a novel account of how to implement it in a morally and politically acceptable way.
In 2016, the Australian government replaced manual fraud detection with the Robodebt scheme, an algorithmic decision-making process. Years later, it was revealed that Robodebt led to nearly half a million false accusations of welfare fraud. In 2020, the government eventually settled a class action lawsuit and is currently on the hook for nearly two billion dollars in repayments to victims, in addition to facing a Royal Commission set to begin in August.
Citizens who faced false accusations had little recourse. They were classified by an algorithm as fraudsters and faced an uphill battle in getting a human to listen to them. Our research addresses this problem of algorithmic recourse, which we conceptualize as an offshoot of the problem of bureaucratic recourse. Large organizations operating with complex, opaque rules sometimes — even often — get things wrong. The error may be traceable to a human mistake or prejudice, failure to anticipate novel phenomena, algorithmic bias, or some combination of these. Regardless of the cause, when people are affected by such errors, they need recourse.