Matt Young, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Public Administration, has won the 2022 Camilla Stivers Award last week. Young and his co-authors received the award for the article ‘Artificial Intelligence and Administrative Evil’. The Camilla Stivers Award is given annually for the best article published in PPMG.
Can you tell us what this award entails?
Young: ‘The Camille Stevens award is given to the best article published by the Public Management Research Association’s flagship theory journal, Perspectives on Public Management and Governance (PPMG). The decision is made by a panel of judges. In short, this means that the article I wrote with my coauthors was judged to be the best theoretical contribution to the field made in this journal for the year 2021. I managed to talk the editorial board into making the article open access as a result of winning, so the award also makes its own incremental contribution to open science.’
Can you briefly tell us what inspired the article Artificial Intelligence and Administrative Evil?
Young: ‘Having lived in Silicon Valley for most of my life, I both appreciate the power of technology and am incredibly skeptical of the claims made by those selling and advocating for its benefits more generally. In the first paper, I wrote about machine learning-based artificial intelligence (ML/AI). Back in 2018/2019, I was frequently the ‘doomsayer’ of our coauthor ship team. I was thus pleased when my colleague and co-author Justin Bullock approached me back in 2019 after having read ‘Unmasking Administrative Evil’ with the idea that it had something to say about the risks from using AI in government. And I want to stress that this usage and its associated risks are not something to only be concerned about in the future: it is here, it is now.
What hooked me on the project was the chance to directly grapple with the normative, moral questions in public administration in a way that could both extend the existing theory and link it to the very real risks that come from using this technology as a tool of governance. I had some good old fashioned struggle sessions trying to bridge those gaps, and am proud of what we were able to do with agency theory to get there.’
What is the main conclusion?
Young: ‘The main conclusion is that there are an awful lot of ways that public sector AI implementation and usage could, and will, create new harms for people and exacerbate preexisting ones. We need to think very hard and very carefully about whether and how to permit, appropriately limit, and monitor and evaluate its use.
But I think there’s an even more significant conclusion in that we – scholars, practitioners, citizens, human beings, whatever your category of choice – need to stop and look at what the systems we’ve set up to orchestrate our social relations are actually doing to ourselves and each other, and ask whether that’s something worth continuing. We’re facing systems-level pressures that I don’t think we’re willing to honestly acknowledge, and by pretending that things are & will continue to be ‘ok’ we’re allowing gross damages, injustices, and harms – evil – to continue apace and in our own names. At the end of the day, ML/AI are simply tools that produce outputs. These are based on an often-confused admixture of what we ask them to do and what we use to train them. If we don’t have our own shit together, no tool is going to save us from ourselves.’
What does this award mean to you personally?
Young: ‘If I am honest it means a lot more to me than I expected. I like to think that I have relatively thick skin having selected into a profession where failure and rejection are the modal experience. But having a project that I and my coauthors worked so hard on receive unsolicited acknowledgement like this is incredibly affirming, and we as scholars don’t do that as often for each other as we perhaps ought to.
Also, it is deeply satisfying to win this award for a theoretical paper after being told by countless people that I should only focus on incrementalist empirical research because it was ‘the One True Path’ to tenure in this field. I left a perfectly comfortable private-sector career to be here for the incredible privilege of academic freedom, so it’s nice if I can not only swim upstream against that line of thinking but get recognized by my peers for it.’