Last week, Mayor de Blasio surprised many with an ambitious-sounding plan on automation, including a so-called “robot tax.” It shocked no one more than those of us who have campaigned for years to get the mayor to come to grips with government automation and artificial intelligence, only to be stonewalled at every turn. The saga appears to be just the latest chapter in the tale of two mayors: There’s the forward looking, reform-minded mayor on the campaign trail and a very different man blocking progress at City Hall.
But let’s take a step back: What does automation have to do with New York City government? More than you might guess. Increasingly, artificial intelligence (also know as automated decisions systems) are supplanting human decisions on when children are put into foster care, where students get assigned to school, and even NYPD and FDNY deployment.
It’s a fundamental shift in how countless choices are made, but it’s largely happened in secret, without any public debate or analysis. This is why the City Council acted in 2017, passing a bill requiring the mayor to establish a city task force on automated decision systems. The bill became law a few weeks later after the mayor refused to sign or veto the measure. This was perhaps the most ambitious effort to tackle automation in New York City history, and de Blasio couldn’t be bothered to pick a side. Hard to square with the man who now declares automation as “a looming threat.”
Still, the task force was momentous, the first effort of its kind anywhere in the country, the first comprehensive effort to understand how government automation impacts employees and members of the public. Publicly, the city basked in the well-earned media attention.
But a very different reality unfolded behind the scenes.
Rather than give the task force the resources it needed to tackle this momentous challenge and regulate A.I., it starved the group of support. For the first year, the task force held no open meetings and made no public statements. I only know because I was there, working on the task force for the first frustrating months. Back then, there was a single City Hall webpage that told the public that the group existed, without even listing the names of members or when we met.
The contrast to other states couldn’t be starker. Take Vermont, which created a statewide Artificial Intelligence Task Force five months after New York City. At a time when the New York City task force was meeting in private, the Vermont Task Force had experts testify at publicly broadcasted hearings, publicly posting its meeting agendas and minutes.
This lack of public engagement was just a sign of much larger problems. The most crucial fight has been over access to information on city government use of algorithms and automation. It may seem obvious, but it’s hard to write a report on New York City’s artificial intelligence systems unless you actually know how the city uses A.I. It defeats the entire purpose.
Task force members, including leading researchers and academics, have been outraged. After all, this was the whole point of having a task force in the first place. As one task force member, New York University’s Julia Stoyanovich, put it in April: “if no examples are forthcoming, ‘then there was really no point in forming the task force at all.’”
The most frustrating part is that the mayor’s office already has much of this information. If they wanted to, they could give the task force members the data they need in a matter of hours. Instead, they’ve spent months explaining why the artificial intelligence task force can’t know about the one thing it’s supposed to study.
The most ironic part is that there’s actually nothing wrong with de Blasio’s automation plan. A “robot tax” may actually be an effective way to respond to the impact of automation on the American work force. The problem is that it’s hard to believe the promise coming from campaign-trail de Blasio when we know how little City Hall de Blasio is doing back home.
Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy organization.