Charles Gutjahr

Melbourne, Australia

November 2020

Charles Gutjahr

A short opinion

AI enhances us, it doesn't replace us

I am so happy to see the Robodebt disgrace is finally over with a class action settled by the Government this week. There are a pile of lessons to learn from that saga, but here's the one most relevant to me and my industry: algorithms and artificial intelligence are tools, not brains.

AI can help us make better decisions, but it cannot and should not make decisions for us. Robodebt should stand as the canonical case study into why that is true: most of the decisions this system made were wrong. Previously the ATO would use algorithms to identify potential fraud and mistakes, then a human would follow up and decide whether to pursue the matter. Robodebt took humans out of the loop and the result was a disaster: hundreds of thousands of Australians wrongly accused of fraud, trauma for our most vulnerable people, and billions of dollars wasted.

It scares me that this is going to happen again. Some other system in some other area is going to mess up peoples lives because we make a computer responsible for decisions that it is not capable of. We need to change people's impressions of what algorithms and AI are; they can enhance us but they cannot replace us. Robodebt was just a dumb income-averaging algorithm, but even a state-of-the-art AI cannot justify its decisions or explain its thinking. We must not dismiss people because they do not fit into the narrow scope that a computer system can handle, and the only way to do that is to keep people in the loop for all decisions.

Charles Gutjahr

Temple Brewing Company
I think “get on the beers” might be the next slogan for Victoria’s numberplates

Charles Gutjahr

A short opinion

The man who mistakenly thought he ran the USA

Goodbye to Donald Trump, the man who mistakenly thought he ran the USA.

Amid the sea of lies we heard from Trump it was perhaps too easy to ignore the lie we too often tell ourselves: that a prime minister or president runs their country. They do not. They steer the ship, they guide its course; but they are a small part of the much bigger machine that is the government, the state, society.

A leader is a reflection of their people, not the boss. Trump could never have been US President if people didn't want that. He didn't create Trumpism, he just inflamed it and stuck his brand on it. So getting rid of Trump doesn't fix the underlying problems, it's the other way around: America has to fix its problems to avert another Trump.

I reckon it is a dangerous fiction to let voters think a political leader has total control. The leaders start to believe it themselves. It gives political sides a mistaken belief that they will make everything better when it's their turn to eat. But that fails because the result is half the people telling the other half what to do, and if that other half doesn't want to do it then it's not going to happen.

This is not to say the leader does not matter. It was surely necessary to get rid of selfish Trump before America could tackle its problems, but it is no end in itself. What makes me sad for the USA was not Trump but the culture that put him there, a culture which is as strong today as ever.

Many of my Aussie friends are obsessed by US politics, for you fans I do hope that you're enjoying the Biden victory. It is a moment to savour that there is hope and progress in the world. I don't want to take away from that, but I can't help thinking that we shouldn't care so much about the USA. It's not our country, not our problems. USA has some wonderful institutions and great people who dedicate their lives to fixing their problems; they've got this. But who is looking out for us? Only we can deal with Australia's problems. My hope for today is that we can all forget about the USA for while and work on ourselves instead. We should start on the first nations voice in the Australian constitution. That will come about when we the people demand it. Our leaders, as always, will follow us.