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Algorithmic governance for the people by the people

Professor Hugues Bersini, Université Libre de Bruxelles
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Hugues Bersini

This is a real emergency. We find ourselves at the base of a number of obstacles that include global warming, the environment and agriculture in danger, explosive inequalities, community tensions and severely weakened economic systems. But the law is far too slow in terms of algorithmic immediacy. The law is far too flexible and far too open to interpretation with regard to algorithmic "hardness". The GAFA are proving this to us every day, with their technologies constantly being used to precede and replace legislation.  In this race between invasive algorithms and outdated lawyers, we advocate a middle road: giving these algorithms, whose effectiveness the GAFA are demonstrating every minute, their rightful place, provided that politics and citizens take back control of their design and creation.

It is better for a car to stop itself at a traffic light than for a hurrying driver to stop because they fear an accident or an expensive fine. It is better to have smart home automation that reduces your greenhouse gas emissions by fifty percent than a negotiation on the polluting quota market or the fear of a fine due to exceeding the authorised emission threshold. Taxes levied algorithmically at source are preferable to long deliberations on all the ways we can avoid our financial contribution to public goods.

All democracies seek an ideal position between efficiency and legitimacy. Today, in many of our countries, it seems that the obsession with legitimacy through the deceptive election or referendum process is increasingly taking precedence over the poor quality of government services. However, has the time not come to rethink this position in the face of this distrust of politics and governments that is insidiously taking hold everywhere, leading many citizens to look with envy at stupidly extreme solutions? Is it not time to reconsider the modes of legitimation and move towards greater efficiency this time? A gaping chasm is opening up between ancestral political mechanisms that have aged badly, and the rapid arrival of algorithms and telecommunications which, without anyone's approval, are already delighting in freely redrawing the contours of our shared life: norms, reputations, communitisation, division of labour and market economy.

Our daily lives are so overwhelmed by this digital invasion that its effectiveness is no longer in doubt. On the path linking legitimacy to efficiency, an algorithm has no legitimacy at all, as it has been created and designed first and foremost to be fully effective. In France, the “Admission Post Bac (APB)/Parcoursup" algorithm has already been extensively debated, given the extreme sensitivity of the subject: the assignment of our little darlings to the schools and universities that will look after them for many years. Parents have often been troubled by the way in which their children were treated and have rightly demanded more transparency, especially since the drawing of lots is often mentioned as a last resort, to the great displeasure of these very parents who are shocked that a roll of the dice and teaching go so well together. The algorithm was finally made public in response to this concern and lack of understanding. This is undeniably a step in the right direction.

The next step should lead to the group of developers in charge of its creation, maintenance and evolution, composed of experts in IT and public education and interested and responsible citizens, such as parents, chosen at random. Very interesting experiments involving the public and political takeover of big data and IT technologies are underway in cities such as San Francisco, Boston and Milton Keynes (in Great Britain). Boston is the site of algorithmic experimentation by a group of developers under the label "Code for America"; their achievements include automated enrolment in public schools. This should spread to all cities and countries. The authors of future algorithms must have access to as much public data as possible, including that held by the GAFA (and which gives them so much power and wealth), so that they can design and calibrate the software in charge of our happy coexistence.

The idea that in the future our behaviours will be dictated, bound and remotely controlled by algorithms will make even our most libertarian thinkers tremble. This is undoubtedly short-sighted, as surely the best laws are neutral, discarnate, invisible, blending with the walls, impervious to the arbitrariness of judges, and leaving everyone with the illusion that anything goes... between the barriers put up by software. Algorithms are already everywhere to help us cope with so much complexity. However, they should not be made in our image, so that they multiply our vices and greed, further increase the very human propensity to divert common goods or simply turn away from them.

Instead, it is becoming urgent to use them, and their programmers, in the service of the community.

If the yellow vests learn to code, the future is theirs!