A brightly coloured illustration which can be viewed in any direction. It has many elements to it working together: men in suits around a table, someone in a data centre, big hands controlling the scenes and holding a phone, people in a production line. Motifs such as network diagrams and melting emojis are placed throughout the busy vignettes.

The human cost of automation bias 

Opinion: Why the Post Office and Fujitsu’s deliberate miscarriages of justice are not a scandal, but an outrage we must all share

It has taken a TV series to bring widespread attention and police action to what has been described as the Post Office “Scandal” – in which innocent people were criminalised because of accounting system bugs. Scandal feels like a somewhat trivial term for what appears to be a series of cruel and arrogant crimes resulting in over seven hundred innocent Subpostmasters in Britain being robbed. Robbed not just of the ability to live out their lives, but of their livelihoods, homes, savings, reputation, in many cases of their liberty, of their sanity, and In some cases, their actual lives.

Despite wrongful convictions of Subpostmasters already showing the wrongdoing which led to these miscarriages of justice, it has required the arts and media to force any accountability or consequences through telling the stories. Stories of people who have been silenced, gaslighted, obstructed and persecuted by people and institutions of power, in the face of the massive failure and/or complicity of the state. Yet it seems that this suffering was not enough to prompt the active pursuit of consequences until the stories were dramatised and brought to a wider section of the public than had been following the news of the events and aftermath which have been going on for over 20 years.

The mini-series format of delivery means that the public are still only hearing part of the story; a dramatic narrative which focuses on the shock of the brutal ruthlessness of the trusted institution of the Post Office, and the heroic tenacity of the minnows who stood up to it against the odds. This story is hugely important, and the release of “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” has been quickly followed by the announcement of a fraud investigation. Presumably into the question of how the Post Office managed to legally account for the money they stole from Subpostmasters to replace the fictitious losses Horizon fabricated; a question which should have been raised as soon as the first wrongful conviction was proven.

But, what about the story of the managers and teams at Fujitsu, who would have known the Post Office were lying about the system errors, some even seeding the lies? For the sake of contracts/profits/branding, people at Fujitsu at best sat by and watched their client ruin the lives of hundreds of less powerful, innocent people who were blamed for their system’s failures. They denied the infallibility of their system while having teams of people trying to fix as many of the bugs as possible. At worst, they resolutely lied and contrived to cover for a seriously flawed system. 

Although the TV series has prompted a statement that two expert witnesses at Fujitsu who gave false evidence about the performance of the system are now being investigated for perjury, what about the others at Fujitsu who did nothing to correct the record? Although the whistleblower who broke the case appears in the drama, the script is much more focused on the management of the Post Office. It stops short of adding imagined scenes about what must have been happening at Futitsu – perhaps because it is so opaque and hidden that doing so would be too big a leap of imagination for a “true story”.

Commentary and news also seem to focus more on the Post Office, including their “automation bias” – the tendency to trust automated results and decisions even when evidence should discredit them. Articles cite automation bias as a key cause for the trust put in Fujitsu’s Horizon system over the testimony of numerous people whom a modicum of critical thinking would have indicated couldn’t all be lying. “Mr Bates vs Post Office” is indeed a textbook cautionary tale about the dangers of automation bias – a tale have been sharing for the past few years as part of encouraging people to question the hype and technosolutionism surrounding AI. However, the term “Automation bias” makes it sound like the bias is intrinsic and inevitable; a natural bias which, as with other cognitive biases is part of being a successful species. It cloaks the fact that building unwarranted trust in technology takes billions of dollars and massive manipulation by tech companies and those who make money from them.

Automation bias is created by marketing, by unbridled and inaccurate hyperbole aimed at prioritising profits over people, and by lauding tech founders as gods and savants. It is the result of keeping people in ignorance about the true workings of technology, amplified by politicians who turn to technology for solutions to social problems, and which will only ever address symptoms, not causes. It is likely also the result of people seeing “magic’ in systems which produce impressive results they don’t understand, but this is why we need to make sure people do not weaponise this reaction to make money, gaslight us, silence us, criminalise us if we challenge. 

We need to see how a TV series looking behind the scenes at Fujitsu –  the people complicit, the decisions they made or failed to make, and the pressures they were under. Or at least to be having public and media updates about who has been made responsible, and meaningful debate on how we can hold such powerful organisations to account. Even better, to not need dramatised stories, but simply for the public to be in a position to demand and receive transparency, accountability, ethical governance of technology and automation at all times. Because undoubtedly there are many many more “scandals” happening right now, some visible yet unchecked, and some yet to come to light. The hype around the notoriously unreliable Generative AI ensures this, along with narratives of imminent artificial general intelligence (AGI) which encourage us to believe in the infallibility and inevitability of AI tools. Let’s not sit back and wait to be outraged at the resulting TV miniseries in 20 years.

Tania Duarte, We and AI Founder

Image credit: Clarote & AI4Media / Better Images of AI / Power/Profit / CC-BY 4.0