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Automated Decisions

As technology move our culture towards automation, so do our methods of decision-making. Social Security Administration (SSA) aims to have a uniform process in determining which disability claims to approve or deny, yet it employs thousands of various adjudicators and administrative law judges to apply their reasoning skills in making those determinations. As they say in law, reasonable minds can differ.

Certainly, due process necessitates a system capable of handling large volumes of claims, and technological innovations such as videoconferencing have increased SSA's ability to process claims more efficiently. Yet the process is convoluted with differing opinions from medical providers, conflicting testimony from vocational experts, and opposing conclusions from adjudicators at all levels. SSA's reliance on outdated information from the Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics is supplemented by a witness or decision-maker's individual experiences, which vary greatly and give deference to interpretive pluralism. For example, one vocational expert may testify that an individual who is off-task 10% of the time would be unemployable, whereas another expert may testify the necessary rate is 20%. Could the testimony from vocational experts be downloaded into software and periodically updated for consistent answers? Could an automated decision-making program render unbiased decisions and reduce costs for SSA?

The practice of medicine has already seen a move toward automation. For example, medical providers access electronic medical record systems to track and recommend preventative medical procedures. SSA too, has instituted software programs such as FIT (Findings Integrated Template) and more recently HACPS (Hearings and Case Processing System) to assist adjudicators in writing decisions and reduce the backlog of hearings. However, some attorneys question whether an automated system violates due process, criticizing computer software and existing artificial intelligence for its lack of oversight and potential for security breaches. While there is no foolproof algorithm to date for making administrative decisions, research suggests that use of automated systems will greatly improve our ability to do so. It is reasonable to expect that SSA will one day have automated decisions.

Steven Johnson, How to Make a Big Decision; New York Times, Sep. 1, 2018.

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Coon Rapids, MN 55448

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