Dehumanising Human Services – literally

“Our vision is that in the future when you first interact with DHS [Department of Human Services], it’s with a virtual assistant: you outline your circumstance – I’ve just lost my job, my mother has died, I’ve just been kicked out of home – so the virtual assistant will need to be able to deal with many elements of context.”

This is not satire. Nor is it any longer the stuff of dystopian science fiction. These are the words of Charles McHardie, Human Services chief technology officer, outlining the department’s “vision” of replacing humans with robots for its front-line “customer” interaction, in areas including Medicare, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, student entitlements, child support and more. Think about that for a moment, and not just the delicious irony of “human services” being performed by robots.

What kind of society aspires to a situation in which people who have just lost their job (maybe they were replaced by a robot?), whose mother has just died, who have just become homeless and who need help, are greeted not by a thinking, feeling human being, but by a robot? To anyone likely to end up on this side of the Centrelink counter, it is yet another brick in the wall of callous bureaucratic tyranny. But for those running this system, it’s perfection.

The unfolding Centrelink fake debt debacle – in which the government is employing standover tactics that would make “Chopper” Read blush to claw back hundreds of millions of dollars from welfare recipients – is a case in point. One of the main obstacles to the government is Centrelink staff, several of whom have come forward to blow the whistle on the whole scam. As reported in the Guardian, a letter sent by an anonymous whistleblower says:

“We are struggling daily with our consciences and pushing back against our leaders every single day. We are telling the [online compliance intervention system] help desk over and over that what we are doing is wrong … I’m writing because I along with so many of my co-workers have tried to stop the wrong that is being done to thousands of our customers on a daily basis and I can no longer live with what we are doing.”

When staff can’t be replaced by unthinking robots, they are forced to act as robots. “Within the organisation it is well known that there are errors in the program and compliance officers are directed to ignore incorrect debts without being permitted to correct them”, the whistleblower wrote.

More generally, the unthinking, unfeeling state bureaucracy, which is constantly being “perfected” in its inhumanity, is a product of the capitalist system. It reflects, serves and enforces the unthinking, unfeeling market forces that dictate our lives. Taking democratic control of the economic system and all other aspects of our society, i.e. socialism, is about humanising the world we live in. Then robots could be used to make our lives better. Until then, all these steps should be resisted along with the general war on welfare recipients.