Modeling Through

by Ryan Calo

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Abstract

Theorists of justice have long imagined a decision-maker capable of acting wisely in every circumstance. Policymakers seldom live up to this ideal. They face well-understood limits, including an inability to anticipate the societal impacts of state intervention along a range of dimensions and values. Policymakers see around corners or address societal problems at their roots. When it comes to regulation and policy-setting, policymakers are often forced, in the memorable words of political economist Charles Lindblom, to “muddle through” as best they can.

Powerful new affordances, from supercomputing to artificial intelligence, have arisen in the decades since Lindblom’s 1959 article that stand to enhance policymaking. Computer-aided modeling holds promise in delivering on the broader goals of forecasting and systems analysis developed in the 1970s, arming policymakers with the means to anticipate the impacts of state intervention along several lines—to model, instead of muddle. A few policymakers have already dipped a toe into these waters, others are being told that the water is warm.

The prospect that economic, physical, and even social forces could be modeled by machines confronts policymakers with a paradox. Society may expect policymakers to avail themselves of techniques already usefully deployed in other sectors, especially where statutes or executive orders require the agency to anticipate the impact of new rules on particular values. At the same time, “modeling through” holds novel perils that policymakers may be ill equipped to address. Concerns include privacy, brittleness, and automation bias, all of which law and technology scholars are keenly aware. They also include the extension and deepening of the quantifying turn in governance, a process that obscures normative judgments and recognizes only that which the machines can see. The water may be warm, but there are sharks in it.

These tensions are not new. And there is danger in hewing to the status quo. As modeling through gains traction, however, policymakers, constituents, and academic critics must remain vigilant. This being early days, American society is uniquely positioned to shape the transition from muddling to modeling.

Modeling Through

by Ryan Calo

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

Theorists of justice have long imagined a decision-maker capable of acting wisely in every circumstance. Policymakers seldom live up to this ideal. They face well-understood limits, including an inability to anticipate the societal impacts of state intervention along a range of dimensions and values. Policymakers see around corners or address societal problems at their roots. When it comes to regulation and policy-setting, policymakers are often forced, in the memorable words of political economist Charles Lindblom, to “muddle through” as best they can.

Powerful new affordances, from supercomputing to artificial intelligence, have arisen in the decades since Lindblom’s 1959 article that stand to enhance policymaking. Computer-aided modeling holds promise in delivering on the broader goals of forecasting and systems analysis developed in the 1970s, arming policymakers with the means to anticipate the impacts of state intervention along several lines—to model, instead of muddle. A few policymakers have already dipped a toe into these waters, others are being told that the water is warm.

The prospect that economic, physical, and even social forces could be modeled by machines confronts policymakers with a paradox. Society may expect policymakers to avail themselves of techniques already usefully deployed in other sectors, especially where statutes or executive orders require the agency to anticipate the impact of new rules on particular values. At the same time, “modeling through” holds novel perils that policymakers may be ill equipped to address. Concerns include privacy, brittleness, and automation bias, all of which law and technology scholars are keenly aware. They also include the extension and deepening of the quantifying turn in governance, a process that obscures normative judgments and recognizes only that which the machines can see. The water may be warm, but there are sharks in it.

These tensions are not new. And there is danger in hewing to the status quo. As modeling through gains traction, however, policymakers, constituents, and academic critics must remain vigilant. This being early days, American society is uniquely positioned to shape the transition from muddling to modeling.