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Automation Ethics: An Ongoing Challenge for the Future

A Working Philosopher Considers the Future of Automation

When most people think of “automation,” we’re initially likely to think of efficient robots, machine tools, and control systems. Then, if we’re still thinking about it, we may—as we should—move on to the questions around how those sorts of technologies affect people. People as workers, managers, and ultimately, as human beings.

That’s where the ethical dimension of automation, and the important debates around it, begin.

Automation is not new, and it does not occur in a vacuum. Historically, it began before the modern era, and it is one of the most important tendencies of the modern world since the First Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century. Today, it is also emerging as one of the principal drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As such, it is important for all of us—and perhaps especially the engineers, scientists, and technicians implementing automation—to reflect upon the ethical implications of automation. Automating wisely could lead to a much brighter and more productive future for humanity across the world. Automating in a short-sighted manner could result in business and social disruption, grievances, and quite possibly major political instability.

There are many questions linked to automation ethics. For the purposes of this blog entry, I will point out just two of them: job disruption and the value of labor. These general reflections express my own personal views. I’ll leave the detailed solutions for future consideration.

The concerns about job displacement are sometimes known as “technological unemployment,” following the eminent British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946).

There is a considerable range of opinions on this topic. Will automation significantly reduce the overall number of jobs, thereby increasing unemployment as population grows, or will the economic growth and efficiency to which it contributes end up creating new jobs in the future? It’s important to stress that friends of automation have more than one reasonable choice here.

You can hold, as many do, that automation will likely be so stimulating to industry and to the economy that there will be a net benefit across the board. If you opt for this viewpoint, you are likely to think that promoting the interests of industry will, through a free and dynamic market, promote the interests of workers. Even if they are displaced in one economic sphere, they will likely find comparable or even better employment in another one.

Realistically, this line is best run if you can provide a good general economic theory of employment and growth to support it. It would also seem more plausible and fair if you incorporate some element of worker retraining into your model. So, for example, if workers lose their jobs in a particular area of the manufacturing sector, they will be helped effectively to retrain for a different (and possibly new) area of the economy.

If, on the other hand, you do not think that displaced workers will tend to be re-employed elsewhere, you may opt for something along the lines of what is sometimes called a “universal basic income.” This is in part seen as a way of promoting individual liberty and creativity, and as a sort of shield against job replacement in the rapidly changing economy. Both conservatives and liberals have flirted with it in various forms, and it was considered by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. It has been implemented to a limited degree internationally, including local experiments in Finland and Canada. Andrew Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” is the latest American version of it.

Wherever you stand on this question, however, it is clear that automation can be seen as compatible with a fair society. Critics often make it out to be a purely destructive force, but it needn’t be.

Defending automation in an ethical way must involve, whatever your approach, recognizing its powerful effects on labor, and by extension, on laborers. People have always valued productive work, and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in an increasingly automated future.

At its best, automation can increase freedom by offering not just a wider range of efficient and reasonably priced goods and services, but a new sense of the importance of choosing the creative activities that we do, with technology providing us with a higher and developing standard of living. It can remind us of the value of choosing how we spend our time, and what we work on. Because of all this, we have to devote some of that work today to coming up with fair and workable solutions to social challenges that we are likely to encounter tomorrow.


The views expressed here are the author’s own. Interested in reading more articles like this? Subscribe to ISA Interchange and receive weekly emails with links to our latest interviews, news, thought leadership, tips, and more from the automation industry.

 

About the Author

Eric B. Litwack, Ph.D. is a philosopher and counselor. He is an organizational associate of EthicScan Canada Ltd., and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield (UK). He also teaches philosophy of data and technology at Syracuse University in London.


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