In 2023, conversations about artificial intelligence (AI) and automation became central in US media and news, raising debates about the potential benefits and risks of new technologies. In our reading and listening, the Digital Benefits Network (DBN) team has been paying attention to how different technologies are used, as well as approaches to automating processes and decision making in benefits delivery, rather than focusing on a specific technology.
It can be difficult to parse through the different terms used to describe the technology behind automated processes and systems—from artificial intelligence, to robotic process automation to algorithmic-driven decision making and automated decision-making systems. It can also be challenging to sort through information about what a given technology can and cannot do today. Within the public benefits field, automation may describe uses of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to streamline administrative tasks like assembling needed documents, or scheduling tasks. Generally RPA describes software that is process driven, meaning that they follow the rules specified by the user. However, other technologies can also be used to automate more complex and impactful components of benefits delivery, like fraud detection and eligibility determination, uses which have drawn scrutiny for many years. Automated systems may be touted for their potential: to ease case worker loads, process information quickly, and speed benefits access. However, the key word is potential. The impact of an uncaught bug, unforeseen biases, or an ethical oversight can be hugely consequential for end users, as seen when automated systems failed beneficiaries in Michigan, Arkansas, and elsewhere.
Following our facilitated sessions on Automation/AI at BenCon in June, we continue to gather resources and new information, and are sharing a list of several sources—from journalistic pieces, to reports and academic articles—we’ve found especially useful and interesting in our reading over the past few months. We hope that these resources are relevant for benefits practitioners getting oriented to key questions and definitions around automation, as well as anyone interested in automation or public benefits. You can access the full list along with short summaries on the Digital Benefits Hub, where you can also find our growing collection of resources on automation and AI.