Bureaucracy Meets Artificial Intelligence


Photo by Francesco Ungaro

We spend our lives wandering in and out of them. Sometimes dreading the time we are about to lose and never get back. As unavoidable as death and taxes, but never spoken of as such. Hollywood says they’re faceless, massive buildings, designed to thrash us of our very souls before we even enter their dark doors.

In my last article I wrote about how criminals might actually slow the progress of Artificial Intelligence. It was a bit of tongue-in-cheek. What might actually slow the progress of AI may in fact, be bureaucrats.

Bureaucracies. We fear them, despise them, yet need them. How will they fare in the era of Artificial Intelligence? A technology that lurks like a scary story by the fireside, waiting, waiting.

In past technology revolutions, the jobs threatened and replaced have been those of the manual labourer. Factory workers swept away by robots and machines who never complained. Blue collars. For the first time since the start of the industrial revolution, the machines are coming for the knowledge workers and the creatives. Lawyers, insurance adjustors, marketers, musicians, designers, poets. Bureaucrats.

Sociologists Marx and Engels believed that capitalism’s tendency, very need in fact, to constantly revolutionise the means of industrial production, manufacturing, would eventually be their undoing. I doubt they, or any other sociologist, ever thought technology would be the undoing of bureaucracy. But perhaps, here we are.

The very nature of bureaucracies is processes, procedures and policies. We tend to think bureaucracy is an idea of the modern world, a creation of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism and born of Western European thinking. Enshrined best (or worst) in British and German societies. Not at all. The Egyptians were well noted for their incredibly efficient bureaucracy. The Romans and even the Mughal and Andean societies. Bureaucracy is a rather old thing for us humans really.

When we humans learned to write and record things, we didn’t spring forth with literary works, music and poetry. The dull reality is, we made records of transactions, debts, inventories and wealth. We started a very long time ago doing what A.I. can now quite easily, breezily, do.

Much more recent bureaucracies, at least those emanating out of Europe, that would become the welfare state, such as pensions, social insurance, public libraries and health clinics, did not come from governments. They came from guilds, unions, cooperatives, working class parties and community organisations.

Now, Artificial Intelligence may well be bureaucracy’s moment of reckoning. Perhaps even that of AI itself. Imagine if you have some complex thing you need to get done with a government agency such as dealing with a property issue. You go to the government website and just chatter with a bot, a highly powered AI bot, then you have your own bot interact with its bot and it does trundles off and does all the work. Accessing your records and digital identity certifications. The next morning an email arrives and all is done. Not a single human did anything.

Bureaucracy is largely about processes. This form, that form, signatures here and there and everywhere. Processes and procedures, everything, everywhere all at once. All of this driven by policy wonks, wonking about. They wobble but they don’t fall down. Whether it be large corporations or governments bureaucracies need a lot of people to move things about, enter data, copy papers, send emails.

In many governments, bureaucrats are unionized. Canada’s federal employee unions just held one of the biggest strikes since the 1970s. Another time of rampant inflation. Strikes have been rolling through much of the UK and EU this past year.

It is not a big stretch for AI to be able to do many of these jobs today and as it evolves, perhaps the majority. What a wonder of tax payer savings! But as this realisation dawns upon the unions and the workers, one can imagine we may well suddenly see governments rather in favour of AI regulations. Pauses. Job guarantees. The next strikes may not be about wages, they may well be about job protection from AI.

Government bureaucracies are a force to be reckoned with. A formidable sea wall against the tides of change. Employees of corporate bureaucracies are rarely if ever unionised. AI may well be the raison d’etre unions have been waiting for in the digital age. Tech workers are already eyeing unionisation.

While AI may run rampant over consumers rights, law firms, writers, artists and social media influencers, its biggest hurdles may well be unions and bureaucrats.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Foresight Analyst | Innovation Architect | Celt