Automation & Ethics

Suomi: Heronin aeolipiili Türkçe: Yunanlı mühe...

Suomi: Heronin aeolipiili Türkçe: Yunanlı mühendis Hero’nun yaptığı ilk örnek türbin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hero of Alexandria (born around 10 AD) is credited with developing the first steam engine, the first vending machine and the first known wind powered machine (a wind powered musical organ). Given the revolutionary impact of the steam engine centuries later, it might be wondered why the Greeks did not make use of these inventions in their economy. While some claim that the Greeks simply did not see the implications, others claim that the decision was based on concerns about social stability: the development of steam or wind power on a significant scale would have certainly displaced slave labor. This displacement could have caused social unrest or even contributed to a revolution.

While it is somewhat unclear what prevented the Greeks from developing steam or wind power, the Roman emperor Vespasian was very clear about his opposition to a labor saving construction device: he stated that he must always ensure that the workers earned enough money to buy food and this device would put workers out of work.

While labor saving technology has advanced considerably since the time of Hero and Vespasian, the basic questions remain the same. These include the question of whether to adopt the technology or not and questions about the impact of such technology (which range from the impact on specific individuals to the society as a whole).

Obviously enough, each labor saving advancement must (by its very nature) eliminate some jobs and thus create some initial unemployment. For example, if factory robots are introduced, then human laborers are displaced. Obviously enough, this initial impact tends to be rather negative on the displaced workers while generally being positive for the employers (higher profits, typically).

While Vespasian expressed concerns about the impact of such labor saving devices, the commonly held view about much more recent advances is that they have had a general positive impact. To be specific, the usual narrative is that these advances replaced the lower-paying (and often more dangerous or unrewarding) jobs with better jobs while providing more goods at a lower cost. So, while some individuals might suffer at the start, the invisible machine of the market would result in an overall increase in utility for society.

This sort of view can and is used to provide the foundation for a moral argument in support of such labor saving technology. The gist, obviously enough, is that the overall increase in benefits outweighs the harms created. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, the elimination of these jobs by means of technology is morally acceptable. Naturally, each specific situation can be debated in terms of the benefits and the harms, but the basic moral reasoning seems solid: if the technological advance that eliminates jobs creates more good than harm for society as a whole, then the advance is morally acceptable.

Obviously enough, people can also look at the matter rather differently in terms of who they regard as counting morally and who they regard as not counting (or not counting as much). Obviously, a person who focuses on the impact on workers can have a rather different view than a person who focuses on the impact on the employer.

Another interesting point of concern is to consider questions about the end of such advances. That is, what the purpose of such advances should be. From the standpoint of a typical employer, the end is obvious: reduce labor to reduce costs and thus increase profits (and reduce labor troubles). The ideal would, presumably, to replace any human whose job can be done cheaper (or at the same cost) by a machine. Of course, there is the obvious concern: to make money a business needs customers who have money. So, as long as profit is a concern, there must always be people who are being paid and are not replaced by unpaid machines. Perhaps the pinnacle of this sort of system will consist of a business model in which one person owns machines that produce goods or services that are sold to other business owners. That is, everyone is a business owner and everyone is a customer. This path does, of course, have some dystopian options. For example, it is easy to imagine a world in which the majority of people are displaced, unemployed and underemployed while a small elite enjoys a lavish lifestyle supported by automation and the poor. At least until the revolution.

A more utopian sort of view, the sort which sometimes appears in Star Trek, is one in which the end of automation is to eliminate boring, dangerous, unfulfilling jobs to free human beings from the tyranny of imposed labor. This is the sort of scenario that anarchists like Emma Goldman promised: people would do the work they loved, rather than laboring as servants to make others wealthy. This path also has some dystopian options. For example, it is easy to imagine lazy people growing ever more obese as they shovel in cheese puffs and burgers in front of their 100 inch entertainment screens. There are also numerous other dystopias that can be imagined and have been explored in science fiction (and in political rhetoric).

There are, of course, a multitude of other options when it comes to automation.

 

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  1. Humans have brains that invent labour saving tools, or enhancement tools. That seems an outcome from evolution.

    Of course humans choose not to follow all our natural instincts, such as killing and harming, so it is possible that we might choose to not use tools for some contrived moral reason. The irony would be that it would be pretty damned difficult to convey that moral principle without using tools of some sort. Think of all those poor people that could have been employed carrying the message around the world, all out of a job because some moral delinquent invented writing.

    The only ‘natural’ means of conveyance would be word of mouth. So there goes every philosophy book that has conveyed a negative opinion on ethical use of tools.

    If we’re rational enough to only consider the effects of tools, and really included all tools and not just those thought to be of a more technical and automatic nature, then we have to say that without writing, or even bottles for the automatic provision of water locally rather than going to natural water sources for every drink, or fire and all its benefits, then we wouldn’t be here in this position discussing the merits of automation.

    The subject of automation is a trumped up distinction among tools that are of concern only because they seem to replace that sacrosanct of human abilities: thinking.

    Many labour saving tools go unquestioned because they became common before greater social organisation gave any thought of rights to working people. The horse drawn plough, for example, is used further back in time than considerations of the right to labour. Other machines, such as those used to sow seeds perhaps less so.

    Given the benefits of automation (e.g. automatic gene sequencing that speeds the scientific endeavour to investigate genetic disorders) is clearly beneficial.

    Even spreadsheets are beneficial in giving more consistent and accurate results to complex work based on simple maths that moderately trained humans can do. Spreadsheets clearly put a lot of human ‘calculators’ out of work. But one could argue that this is a moral good, since drudgery work is generally soul destroying – though some seem to like it.

    I think it’s easier to make a moral case for automation that one against it.

    To a large extent we rely on developing technologies, which inevitably leads to greater automation. The moral question then shifts from whether we should use it to how we ought to anticipate it.

    It was fair enough that many times in history new technologies would lead to temporary increases in unemployment for individuals. The moral virtue now, knowing that this is the case, is to anticipate it and prepare people for change. This is something we’ve been more aware of globally throughout the later 20th and early 21st centuries.

    So now it becomes immoral not to anticipate change. But this can only be done by society as a whole – we can’t expect all individuals to foresee the changes in the pipeline that will make their particular job redundant. So research into social changes due to technology changes, and the use of that information by government in making education and re-education available, and by incentivising change, should be the virtuous direction to go in.

  2. If automation replaces routine jobs, great, because routine jobs are boring and stressful. There is no virtue in repeating the same movements or the same operation over and over again all day for years and years. In fact, there is nothing particularly noble in work per se, although working at something one finds meaningful or creative can be noble.

    Those whose routine jobs are replaced should receive a guaranteed minimum income, enough to live in, out of taxes paid by the employers whose profits increase due to lesser labor costs.

    If some of the unemployed, with a guaranteed minimum income, choose to spend their time watching TV and drinking beer, that’s their option and I don’t know if that’s any better or worse than the rich who spend their time cruising on huge yachts and drinking whatever the rich drink these days (I don’t have any idea). Maybe it’s better because yachts pollute more than TV sets do.

    Some of those whose jobs are lost to automation will undoubtedly put their time to “better” use, garden, practice sports, play music, write poetry or comment in philosophy blogs.

  3. “A more utopian sort of view, the sort which sometimes appears in Star Trek, is one in which the end of automation is to eliminate boring, dangerous, unfulfilling jobs to free human beings from the tyranny of imposed labor.”

    And freed from the tyranny of imposed labour, the people of Star Trek, freely chose to don military uniforms, and follow orders from the commander of a travelling battle ship. At least we don’t see those who refuse to don the uniform and follow orders.

    Essentially, the Star Trekian Utopia, is one particular version of the fascist dream. It has what looks like liberal concessions; women, ethnic minorities, and intellectuals; in the shape of Dr. Spock. They haven’t been erased from the future as is more common in fascist fantasies, but they are all subservient to Captain Kirk; a middle-class white guy of middling intelligence (Whose middling intelligence always manages to trump Spock, whose intelligence is flawed due it being too intelligent).

    And everyone is happy with the situation, as Kirk is an enlightened despot.

    As is Kim Jong-un.

  4. If devolution preceded evolution and what is occurring now is involution, only human’s intellectual property can easily involve into the electronic world. Material bodies, so far, cannot be dematerialized. People who are replaced by robots are left with the same needs as primitive man for food, shelter, clothing, a doctor, or shaman and the need for the wherewithal to acquire these things. The contents of filing cabinets, index cards, and print materials make an easy transition into the electronic world but the human, whose job is taken over by a robot, still has the need to exist, minus his value as a physical laborer or doer of tedious tasks. He cannot, so far, electronically charge his body battery or exist impervious to the elements.

    The solution would be to provide support for the above-mentioned needs with a provision, so that people do not drop out, that a certain number of hours be given to volunteer work. Those who, if given the opportunity, have the intellectual ability to move on to more complex work should be given assistance in making the transition. The profit motive still trumps valuing human beings so government would have to be involved to enable the transition.

    All things evolve, or involve, we do not know what next will be outsourced, or more accurately in-sourced to technology, what is certain is that anything that can be in-sourced will be.

  5. JMRC,

    Well, to go all Trekkie: Star Fleet is a military organization (although it is unusually strong in the sciences, since each ship has a science officer and science department). Because of this, Star Fleet has ranks and a command structure. Some Star Trek games expand significantly on the Star Trek universe, for example FASA’s Star Trek game provided great detail on the Federation military (the authors presented Star Fleet as divided into various tasks, with the Constitution Class ships being more exploration and other ships, such as certain Andorian designs, were pure combat vessels). The Federation itself is presented as a representative democracy-each planet has representation on the council and there is a president. The show (in its various versions) has actually explored the issues of fascism, freedom and racism. During the DS9 series, several episodes dealt with security, rights and a war on terror. The Federation is also presented as individualistic and the worst enemy in the series is the Borg-which epitomize fascism. So, the Star Trek future is more a liberal utopian fantasy than a fascist fantasy.

    Also, the Enterprise is a CA (heavy cruiser). There are some Federation dreadnoughts, though.

    Kim Jong-Un does not seem very enlightened.

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