Researchers from the UNSW Sydney Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences will play pivotal roles in a new Australian Research Council (ARC) centre investigating the use of automated decision-making technologies that are increasingly determining important decisions in our everyday lives from the news we read to our medical records.

Professor Deborah Lupton, a SHARP professor in the Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH) and the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), and UNSW Professor Leanne Dowse, Professor of Disability Studies in the School of Social Sciences, will each serve as Chief Investigators on the project.

The $71.1 million ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, announced last week by Education Minister Dan Tehan, will bring together national and international experts from the humanities and the social and technological sciences to investigate how automated decision-making technologies can be used ethically, inclusively and responsibly. 

The federal government will provide $31.8 million over seven years to establish the research centre and nodes. Universities and industry partner organisations in North America, Europe and Asia including Google Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Red Cross and Volvo, will provide an additional $39.3 million in funding and in-kind support.

Automated decision-making technologies are relatively new in Australia, but there are a few sectors that have implemented technology that is influencing our day-to-day lives. Examples include social media platforms determining which news articles populate a person’s newsfeed, Centrelink’s so-called robo-debt scheme to identify suspected welfare cheats and algorithms that determine when, where and how to invest money.

Research from the Centre will develop world-leading policy and practice, inform public debate and train a new generation of researchers and practitioners in the field. The Centre will be based at RMIT in Melbourne with seven nodes located at universities across Australia, including UNSW.

Professor Lupton will convene the UNSW node and lead the People Program and Health Focus Area for the Centre, examining how health consumers and healthcare providers understand automated decision-making and incorporate it into their everyday lives. She will work with other members of the People program to investigate how publics and professionals imagine the future of automated decision-making and in the development of solutions to protect consumer rights while maximising the effectiveness and benefits of the technology.

Meanwhile, Professor Dowse will co-lead the Social Services Focus Area for the Centre. This work aims to develop a systemic understanding of the dynamics of automated decision-making in social services in Australia and will include a series of engagement and research workshops addressing the key ethical, organisational, technical and political challenges.

Professor Lupton, who also leads the Vitalities Lab at UNSW, said the funding would enable researchers in the Centre to predict challenges and anticipate risks from a proactive position.

“Over the seven years of the Centre, there clearly will be more systems rolled out in Australia. We will be really well placed to keep a close eye on what’s happening, what’s being developed and implemented by the government and non-government agencies,” Professor Lupton said. “We will be right in there keeping a very close eye on what is going on.”

Minister Tehan said automated decision-making technology is being used in self-driving cars and in algorithms to make medical diagnoses and business decisions. 

“This technology has great potential to transform the efficiency of industry, as well as public and private services, however, as with all technology, it is prudent to explore how to mitigate any possible risks," Minister Tehan said. "Our Government is funding research into automated decision making to ensure this technology provides the best possible outcomes for society and industry.”

Larissa Mavros