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Legitimate Power, Illegitimate Automation: The problem of ignoring legitimacy in automated decision systems

Jake Stone, Brent Mittelstadt

Progress in machine learning and artificial intelligence has spurred the widespread adoption of automated decision systems (ADS). An extensive literature explores what conditions must be met for these systems' decisions to be fair. However, questions of legitimacy -- why those in control of ADS are entitled to make such decisions -- have received comparatively little attention. This paper shows that when such questions are raised theorists often incorrectly conflate legitimacy with either public acceptance or other substantive values such as fairness, accuracy, expertise or efficiency. In search of better theories, we conduct a critical analysis of the philosophical literature on the legitimacy of the state, focusing on consent, public reason, and democratic authorisation. This analysis reveals that the prevailing understanding of legitimacy in analytical political philosophy is also ill-suited to the task of establishing whether and when ADS are legitimate. The paper thus clarifies expectations for theories of ADS legitimacy and charts a path for a future research programme on the topic.

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