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Denmark is using algorithms to dole out welfare benefits

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Lars Løkke Rasmussen Prime Minister of DenmarkFranco Origlia/Getty Images

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning may promise vast social benefits in governance, however, without regulation, they could damage democracy. 
  • Algorithms are especially useful in welfare states, where benefits can be delivered more efficiently. 
  • For example, Denmark is beginning to use algorithms to make its welfare state more efficient, but it does not seem to fully understand the dangerous potential. 
  • The municipality of Gladsaxe in Copenhagen has quietly been experimenting with a system that would use algorithms to identify children at risk of abuse.
  • But that same technology will inevitably take a toll on privacy, family life, and free speech, and can weaken public accountability on the government. 

Everyone likes to talk about the ways that liberalism might be killed off, whether by populism at home or adversaries abroad. Fewer talk about the growing indications in places like Denmark that liberal democracy might accidentally commit suicide.

As a philosophy of government, liberalism is premised on the belief that the coercive powers of public authorities should be used in service of individual freedom and flourishing, and that they should therefore be constrained by laws controlling their scope, limits, and discretion.

That is the basis for historic liberal achievements such as human rights and the rule of law, which are built into the infrastructure of the Scandinavian welfare state.

denmarkFrédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images

Yet the idea of legal constraint is increasingly difficult to reconcile with the revolution promised by artificial intelligence and machine learning—specifically, those technologies’ promises of vast social benefits in exchange for unconstrained access to data and lack of adequate regulation on what can be done with it.

Algorithms hold the allure of providing wider-ranging benefits to welfare states, and of delivering these benefits more efficiently.

Such improvements in governance are undeniably enticing. What should concern us, however, is that the means of achieving them are not liberal.

There are now growing indications that the West is slouching toward rule by algorithm—a brave new world in which vast fields of human life will be governed by digital code both invisible and unintelligible to human beings, with significant political power placed beyond individual resistance and legal challenge. Liberal democracies are already initiating this quiet, technologically enabled revolution, even as it undermines their own social foundation.

Consider the case of Denmark.

The country currently leads the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law ranking, not least because of its well-administered welfare state. But the country does not appear to fully understand the risks involved in enhancing that welfare state through artificial intelligence applications.

The municipality of Gladsaxe in Copenhagen, for example, has quietly been experimenting with a system that would use algorithms to identify children at risk of abuse, allowing authorities to target the flagged families for early intervention that could ultimately result in forced removals.

The children would be targeted based on specially designed algorithms tasked with crunching the information already gathered by the Danish government and linked to the personal identification number that is assigned to all Danes at birth. This information includes health records, employment information, and much more.

From the Danish government’s perspective, the child-welfare algorithm proposal is merely an extension of the systems it already has in place to detect social fraud and abuse. Benefits and entitlements covering millions of Danes have long been handled by a centralized agency (Udbetaling Danmark), and based on the vast amounts of personal data gathered and processed by this agency, algorithms create so-called puzzlement lists identifying suspicious patterns that may suggest fraud or abuse.

danish prime ministerDanish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen gives a speech to open the Smart Country Convention on the digitization of public services on November 20, 2018 in Berlin.TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

These lists can then be acted on by the “control units” operated by many municipalities to investigate those suspected of receiving benefits to which they are not entitled. The data may include information on spouses and children, as well as information from financial institutions.

These practices might seem both well intended and largely benign. After all, a universal welfare state cannot function if the trust of those who contribute to it breaks down due to systematic freeriding and abuse. And in the prototype being developed in Gladsaxe, the application of big data and algorithmic processing seems to be perfectly virtuous, aimed as it is at upholding the core human rights of vulnerable children.

But the potential for mission creep is abundantly clear.

Udbetaling Danmark is a case in point: The agency’s powers and its access to data have been steadily expanded over the years. A recent proposal even aimed at providing this program leviathan access to the electricity use of Danish households to better identify people who have registered a false address to qualify for extra benefits.

The Danish government has also used a loophole in Europe’s new digital data rules to allow public authorities to use data gathered under one pretext for entirely different purposes.

And yet the perils of such programs are less understood and discussed than the benefits.

Part of the reason may be that the West’s embrace of public-service algorithms are byproducts of lofty and genuinely beneficial initiatives aimed at better governance. But these externalities are also beneficial for those in power in creating a parallel form of governing alongside more familiar tools of legislation and policy-setting. And the opacity of the algorithms’ power means that it isn’t easy to determine when algorithmic governance stops serving the common good and instead becomes the servant of the powers that be.

writing sitting outside denmarkStudents of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture sit along a Copenhagen canal.Frédéric Soltan/Getty

This will inevitably take a toll on privacy, family life, and free speech, as individuals will be unsure when their personal actions may come under the radar of the government.

Such government algorithms also weaken public accountability over the government.

Danish citizens have not been asked to give specific consent to the massive data processing already underway. They are not informed if they are placed on “puzzlement lists,” nor whether it is possible to legally challenge one’s designation. And nobody outside the municipal government of Gladsaxe knows exactly how its algorithm would even identify children at risk.

Gladsaxe’s proposal has produced a major public backlash, which has forced the town to delay the program’s planned rollout. Nevertheless, the Danish government has expressed interest in widening the use of public-service algorithms across the country to bolster its welfare services—even at the expense of the freedom of the people they are intended to serve.

It may be tempting to dismiss algorithmic governance, or algocracy, as a mere continuation of authoritarianism, as represented by China’s notorious social credit systems, which have often been described as the 21st-century manifestation of Orwellian dystopia.

artificial intelligence AI robtos US military and defense tech technology GoogleThe hand of humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the German research centre for artificial intelligence at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover March, 5, 2013.Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

And one-party states do indeed find obvious comfort in using new technologies like AI to consolidate the power of the party and its interests. This conforms to historical examples of dictatorships using newspapers, radio, television, and other media for propaganda purposes while suppressing critical journalism and political pluralism.

But algocracy is not a matter of ideology, but rather technology and its inherently attractive potential. As Denmark makes clear, there are strong temptations for liberal democracies to govern with algorithmic tools that promise huge rewards in terms of efficiency, consistency and precision.

Algocracies are likely to emerge as by-products of governments seeking to better deliver benefits to citizens.

And despite the fundamental differences between China’s one-party state and Danish liberal democracy, the very democratic infrastructure that distinguishes the latter from the former might not be able to fulfil that role into the future.

There are good reasons to think judicial procedures would not be able to serve as a check on the growth of public-service algorithms. Consider the Danish case: the civil servants working to detect child abuse and social fraud will be largely unable to understand and explain why the algorithm identified a family for early intervention or individual for control.

As deep learning progresses, algorithmic processes will only become more incomprehensible to human beings, who will be relegated to merely relying on the outcomes of these processes, without having meaningful access to the data or its processing that these algorithmic systems rely upon to produce specific outcomes. But in the absence of government actors making clear and reasoned decisions, it will be impossible for courts to hold them accountable for their actions.

Thus, algorithms designed with the sole purpose of eliminating social welfare free-riding will almost inevitably lead to increasingly draconian measures to police individual behavior. To prevent AI from serving as a tool toward this dystopian end, the West must focus more on algorithmic governance—regulations to ensure meaningful democratic participation and legitimacy in the production of the algorithms themselves. There is little doubt that this would reduce the efficiency of algorithmic processes. But such a compromise would be worthwhile, given the way that algocracy will otherwise involve the sacrifice of democracy.

Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen based think tank focusing on human rights and the rule of law and the host and producer of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.

Hin-Yan Liu is an Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, faculty of law, where he coordinates the faculty’s Artificial Intelligence and Legal Disruption Research Group.

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The 3 Best Canadian Tech Stocks I Would Buy With $3,000 for 2021

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The majority of the Canadian tech stocks went through the roof in 2020 and delivered outsized returns. However, tech stocks witnessed sharp selling in the past 10 days, reflecting valuation concerns and expected normalization in demand. 

As these high-growth tech stocks shed some of their gains, I believe it’s time to accumulate them at current price levels to outperform the broader markets by a significant margin in 2021. Let’s dive into three tech stocks that have witnessed a pullback and are looking attractive bets. 

Lightspeed POS

Lightspeed POS (TSX:LSPD)(NYSE:LSPD) stock witnessed strong selling and is down about 33% in the last 10 days. I believe the selloff in Lightspeed presents an excellent opportunity for investors to invest in a high-growth and fundamentally strong company. 

Lightspeed witnessed an acceleration in demand for its digital products and services amid the pandemic. However, with the easing of lockdown measures and economic reopening, the demand for its products and services could normalize. Further, it faces tough year-over-year comparisons. 

Despite the normalization in demand, I believe the ongoing shift toward the omnichannel payment platform could continue to drive Lightspeed’s revenues and customer base. Besides, its accretive acquisitions, growing scale, and geographic expansion are likely to accelerate its growth and support the uptrend in its stock. Lightspeed stock is also expected to benefit from its growing average revenue per user, innovation, and up-selling initiatives.     

Shopify 

Like Lightspeed, Shopify (TSX:SHOP)(NYSE:SHOP) stock has also witnessed increased selling and has corrected by about 22% in the past 10 days. Notably, during the most recent quarter, Shopify said that it expects the vaccination and reopening of the economy to drive some of the consumer spending back to offline retail and services. Further, Shopify expects the pace of shift toward the e-commerce platform to return to the normal levels in 2021, which accelerated in 2020.

Despite the normalization in the pace of growth, a strong secular shift towards online commerce could continue to bring ample growth opportunities for Shopify, and the recent correction in its stock can be seen as a good buying opportunity. 

Shopify’s initiatives to ramp up its fulfillment network, international expansion and growing adoption of its payment platform are likely to drive strong growth in revenues and GMVs. Moreover, its strong new sales and marketing channels bode well for future growth. I remain upbeat on Shopify’s growth prospects and expect the company to continue to multiply investors’ wealth with each passing year. 

Docebo 

Docebo (TSX:DCBO)(NASDAQ:DCBO) stock is down about 21% in the last 10 days despite sustained momentum in its base business. The enterprise learning platform provider’s key performance metrics remain strong, implying that investors should capitalize on its low stock price and start accumulating its stock at the current levels. 

Docebo’s annual recurring revenue or ARR (a measure of future revenues) continues to grow at a brisk pace. Its ARR is expected to mark 55-57% growth in Q4. Meanwhile, its top line could increase by 48-52% during the same period. The company’s average contract value is growing at a healthy rate and is likely to increase by 22-24% during Q4. 

With the continued expansion of its customer base, geographical expansion, innovation, and opportunistic acquisitions, Docebo could deliver strong returns in 2021 and beyond.

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Manitoba to invest $6.5 million in new systems

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WINNIPEG – The province of Manitoba is investing $6.5 million over three years to replace technical systems used in healthcare facilities, including replacing current voice dictation and transcription services with more modern systems and upgrading the Provincial Health Contact Centre (PHCC)’s triage, call-recording and telephone systems, Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson (pictured) announced.

“Our government is investing in the proper maintenance of information and communications technology to ensure digital health information can be safely stored and shared as needed,” said Stefanson. “These systems will ensure healthcare facilities can continue to provide high-quality services and allow Manitobans to get faster access to healthcare resources and information.”

Dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services are used by healthcare providers to write reports. There are currently approximately 80 healthcare sites across Manitoba using some combination of dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services. Many of these systems are nearing the end of their usable lifespans.

“Across our health system, radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians use voice-dictation services to help create diagnostic reports when reading imaging studies like ultrasound, nuclear medicine studies, X-rays, angiography, MRI and CT scans,” said Dr. Marco Essig, provincial specialty lead, diagnostic imaging, Shared Health. “Enhanced dictation and voice-recognition services will enable us to work more efficiently and provide healthcare providers with quicker access to these reports that support the diagnoses and treatment of Manitobans every day.”

The project will replace telephone-based dictation and transcription with voice-recognition functions, upgrade voice-recognition services for diagnostic imaging and enhance voice-recognition tools for mobile devices.

“Investing in more modern voice-transcription services will help our health-care workers do the administrative part of their jobs more quickly and effectively so they can get back to the most important part of their work – providing top-level healthcare and protecting Manitobans,” said Stefanson. “The transition to the new system will be made seamlessly so that services disruptions, which can lead to patient care safety risks, will not occur.”

The new systems will be compatible with other existing systems, will decrease turnaround times to improve patient care and will be standardized across the province to reduce ongoing costs and allow regional facilities to share resources as needed, Stefanson added.

The PHCC is a one-stop shop for incoming and outgoing citizen contact and supports programs such as Health Links–Info Santé, TeleCARE TeleSOINS and After-Hours Physician Access, as well as after-hours support services to public health, medical officers of health, home care and Manitoba Families.

The current vendor that supplies communications support to the PHCC is no longer providing service, making it an opportune time to invest in an upgraded system that will provide better service to Manitobans, the minister said, adding the project will provide the required systems and network infrastructure to continue providing essential services now and for the near future.

“The PHCC makes more than 650,000 customer service calls to Manitobans per year to a broad spectrum of clients with varied health issues. This reduces the need for people to visit a physician, urgent care or emergency departments,” said Stefanson. “The upgrade will also allow Manitobans in many communities to continue accessing the support they need from their home or local health centre, reducing the need for unnecessary travel.”

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Telus and UHN deliver services to the marginalized

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Telus’s Health for Good program has launched the latest of its specially equipped vans to provide medical services to the homeless and underserved, this time to the population of Toronto’s west end. The project relies not only on the hardware and software – the vans and technology – but on the care delivered by trained and socially sensitive medical professionals.

For the Toronto project, those professionals are working at the University Health Network’s Social Medicine program and the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. The city’s Parkdale community, in the west end, has a high concentration of homeless and marginalized people.

First launched in 2014, Telus’s Health for Good program has delivered mobile clinics to 13 Canadian cities, from Victoria to Halifax. Originally designed to deliver primary care, the program pivoted to meet the needs of patients in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nimtaz Kanji, Calgary-based director of Telus Social Purpose Programs.

Angela Robertson of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) asserted that marginalized people are particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, as they don’t have access to the basic precautions that prevent its spread.

The clinic is located near a Pizza Pizza franchise; homeless people shelter under its overhang on the weekends, she said. Some have encampments under nearby bridges.

“The public health guidelines and requirements call for things that individuals who are homeless don’t have,” Robertson said. “If the response calls for isolation, that suggests people have places to isolate in.”

And in the shelter system, pre-COVID, the environment was very congregate, with many people in the same physical space, said Robertson. Some homeless persons, in order to keep themselves safe, have created encampments, and the city has opened up some hotel rooms across the city to create spaces for physical distancing.

Even proper hand-washing and hygiene becomes a challenge for the homeless.

“COVID calls for individuals to practice constant hand-washing. Oftentimes, individuals who are homeless use public washroom facilities that may be in restaurants or coffee shops, and many of those spaces are now closed. So there are limitations to accessing those facilities. It’s not like they’re in a community where there are public hand-washing facilities for people who are homeless.”

The mobile health clinic allows the CHC to take “pop-up testing” into communities where there is high positivity and where additional COVID testing is needed. The CHC can take testing into congregate sites and congregate housing to provide more testing, Robertson said.

“The other piece that we will use the van to do is, when the vaccine supply gets back online, and when the health system gets to doing community vaccinations … we hope that we can be part of that effort.”

COVID has contributed to a spike in cases of Toronto’s other pandemic: opioid overdoses. Some community members are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma attached to substance abuse; and COVID has a one-two punch for users.

The first rule of substance abuse is, don’t use alone; always be with someone who can respond to a potential overdose, ideally someone who can administer Nalaxone to reverse the effects of the overdose, Robertson said. “It’s substance abuse 101,” and the need for social distancing makes this impossible.

Secondly, COVID has affected the supply chain of street drugs. As a result, they’re being mixed increasingly with “toxic” impurities like Fentanyl that can be deadly.

The van itself is a Mercedes Sprinter, modified by architectural firm éKM architecture et aménagement and builder Zone Technologie, both based in Montréal. According to Car and Driver magazine, the Sprinter line – with 21 cargo models and 10 passenger versions – is “considered by many to be the king of cargo and passenger vans.”

Kanji said the platform was chosen for its reputation for reliability and robustness.

While the configuration is customized for each mobile clinic, it generally consists of two sections: A practitioner’s workstation and a more spacious and private examination room, so patients can receive treatment with privacy and dignity, Kanji said. The Parkdale clinic is 92 square feet.

“While the layouts vary across regions, they typically include an examination table and health practitioners’ workstation, including equipment necessary to provide primary healthcare,” the Telus vice-president of provider solutions wrote in an e-mail interview. The Parkdale Queen West mobile clinic is designed for primary medical services, including wound care, mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, harm reduction services, mental healthcare and counseling.

The clinic equipped with an electronic medical record (EMR) from TELUS Health and TELUS LTE Wi-Fi network technology.

Practitioners will be able to collect and store patient data, examine a patient’s results over time, and provide better continuity of care to those marginalized citizens who often would have had undocumented medical histories.

The EMR system is Telus Health’s PS Suite (formerly Practice Solutions). It is an easy-to-use, customizable solution for general and specialty practices that captures, organizes, and displays patient information in a user-friendly way. The solution allows for the electronic management of patient charts and scheduling, receipt of labs and hospital reports directly into the EMR, and personalization of workflows with customizable templates, toolbars, and encounter assistants.

But like others tested for COVID, it’s a 24-48 hour wait for results. Pop-up or not, how does the mobile team get results to patients who have no fixed address?

The CHC set up a centre for testing in a tent at the Waterfront Community Centre. Swabs are sent to the lab. “We are responsible for connecting back with community members and their results,” Robertson said.

“This is the value of having Parkdale Queen West being in front of the testing, because many of the community members who are homeless we know through our other services, and there is some trust in folks either coming to us to make arrangements to collect their results, or we know where they are.”

This is a key element of the program, said Kanji – leveraging community trust. In Vancouver downtown east side, for example, where there is a high concentration of marginalized members of the indigenous community, nurse practitioners are accompanied by native elders in a partnership with the Kilala Lelum Health Centre.

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