Nine Opportunities and Risks of Algorithmic Decision-Making

1. Normative principles

Opportunity: When an ADM process is designed, normative decisions (e.g. about fairness criteria) must be made before the process is used. This offers an opportunity to discuss ethics issues thoroughly and publically at the very start and to document decisions.

Risk: ADM processes can contain hidden normative decisions. If discussion is only possible once the design phase is complete, any normative principles are more likely to be accepted as unalterable


2. Data

OpportunitySoftware can analyze a much greater volume of data than humans can, thereby identifying patterns and answering certain questions faster, more precisely and less expensively..

Risk: The data used for an ADM process can contain distortions that are seemingly objectified by the process itself. If the causalities behind the correlations are not verified, there is a significant danger that unintentional, systematic discrimination will become an accepted part of the process.


3. Consistency of application

OpportunityAlgorithm-based predictions apply the predetermined decision-making logic to each individual case. In contrast to human decision makers, software does not have good and bad days and does not in some cases arbitrarily use new, sometimes inappropriate criteria.

Risk: In exceptional cases, there is usually no possibility for assessing unexpected relevant events and reacting accordingly. ADM systems unfailingly make use of any incorrect training data and faulty decision-making logic.


4. Scalability

OpportunitySoftware can be applied to an area of application that is potentially many times larger than what a human decision maker can respond to, since the decision-making logic used in a system can be applied at very low cost to a virtually limitless number of cases.

RiskADM processes are easily scalable, which can lead to a decrease in the range of such processes that are or can be used, and to machine-based decisions being made much more often and in many more instances that might be desirable from a societal point of view


5. Verifiability

OpportunityData-driven and digital systems can be structured in a way that makes them clear and comprehensible, allows them to be explained and independently verified, and provides the possibility of forensic data analysis.

RiskBecause of process design and operational application, independent evaluations and explanations of decisions are often only possible, comprehensible or institutionalized to a limited degree.


6. Adaptability

OpportunityADM processes can be adapted to new conditions by using either new training data or self-learning systems

RiskThe symmetry of the adaptability in all directions depends on how the process is designed. One-sided adaptation is also possible.


7. Efficiency

OpportunityHaving machines evaluate large amounts of data is usually cheaper than having human analysts evaluate the same amount.

Risk: Efficiency gains achieved through ADM processes can hide the fact that the absolute level of available resources is too low or inadequate.


8. Personalization

OpportunityADM processes can democratize access to personalized products and services that for cost-related reasons were previously only available to a limited number of people. For example, before the Internet, numerous research assistants and librarians were required to provide the breadth and depth of information that results from a single search-engine query.

RiskWhen ADM processes are the main tools used for the mass market, only a privileged few have the opportunity to be evaluated by human decision makers, something that can be advantageous in non-standard situations when candidates are being preselected or credit scores awarded.


9. Human perception of machine-based decisions

OpportunityADM processes can be very consistent in making statistical predictions. In some cases, such predictions are more reliable than those made by human experts. This means software can serve as a supplementary tool which frees up time for more important activities.

RiskPeople can view software-generated predictions as more reliable, objective and meaningful than other information. In some cases this can prevent people from questioning recommendations and predictions or can result in their reacting to them only in the recommended manner.


This is an excerpt from the working paper “Wenn Maschinen Menschen bewerten — Internationale Fallbeispiele für Prozesse algorithmischer Entscheidungsfindung”, written by Konrad Lischka and Anita Klingel, published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung under CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.

This publication documents the preliminary results of our investigation of the topic. We are publishing it as a working paper to contribute to this rapidly developing field in a way that others can build on.



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