Is Automation Good for Society?

Nowadays we are on the precipice of a new generation of automated workforce, milestones in robotics are being reached and exceeded with startling rapidity, be it the development of driverless cars or autonomous drones, and jobs previously requiring human workers can now be done more effectively and cheaply with robots. In Japan, studies have shown that by 2035 around 50% of the workforce will be automated, but should governments and factory owners encourage this automated ‘robotic revolution’?

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Automation Inevitable?

In a rapidly aging Japan, government projections estimate the labour force is due to shrink over the next 20 years from 66.3 million in 2010 to 56.8 million in 2030. From a utilitarian viewpoint, Japan’s labour power should be optimised by filling the vacant workforce. Statistics show the population of Japan has decreased by 0.7% in 2015, with 44% aged between 14 and 50. This reduced availability of work-ready individuals has detrimental effects on the economy, causing more pressure on an aged population to provide for an economy out of their reach; automation is necessary to mitigate this financial strain on the elderly populace.

We are currently seeing a push back against mass production with increasing popularity of artisanal products, showing that people still value craftsmanship. Even with an increase in automation people will still be able to make a living by selling their own goods. In fact, with the rise of the Internet it has became much easier for people to gain customers and distribute their products on a small scale.

Integrating robotics into the workplace would offset the labour shortage in Japan. More rule-based, data-driven jobs are taken by robots leading to increased product output, quality and consistency. There will be more emphasis on human occupations requiring flexibility and adaptability, raising morale in a workplace which would be imbued with a higher sense of purpose and mental fulfilment.

Take over from robots is inevitable as humans are always seeking ways to do things better. Instead of pretending this isn’t going to happen or trying to prevent it we should spend our time seeking solutions to mitigate its effects. A solution could be for governments to provide all citizens with a basic income that they would be able to live off if their jobs were to be replaced by a robot. Studies show that the Japanese population has on average relatively low levels of life satisfaction and happiness in comparison to most of the highly developed world, attributable to low employee morale which can be solved by robots replacing repetitive, low skilled jobs that are likely causing suffering. Citizens will be able to spend their time doing things that they are passionate about, increasing the utility of the currently sparse workforce, utilising higher happiness in the population by freeing the workforce up to pursue more creative vocations.

This would bring increased levels of creativity to the world leading to novel solutions to our planet’s problem and creating a booming art and entertainment sector. Many parents are being forced to work long hours preventing them from spending the quality time with their children that they deserve, potentially stunting their development. Automation could help alleviate this problem, bringing a new generation of happy, well-rounded children. 

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Consequences of mass automation in factories are up for debate, with conclusions ranging from mass extinction of humankind to the realisation of some robotic utopia. A long-term utilitarian vision strongly relies on prediction of events long into the future – no mean feat. Some 1,896 experts were asked their opinion regarding the effects of robotics on jobs and the results showed an almost 50:50 split.

On the contrary, the negative short term effects of unemployment and technological advancement are well documented. Human beings crave a sense of purpose, which for many is derived from work. In fact, it has been proven that those in employment are happier than those retired or unemployed.

Furthermore, China is quoted as having a ‘progress paradox’ whereby the economic boom and development has actually decreased national happiness. Japan is another example of this. As technology has advanced, happiness has either remained constant or declined, whilst cultures with little technology, such as the Amish, are listed as some of the happiest.

Use of robots also introduces a new set of risks such as vulnerability to hacking – a serious problem as, unlike computers, robots have the potential to cause humans physical harm.

What is certain is that jobs will be lost in the short term to the detriment of the employees’ well-being, along with that of their families and local communities. When the motives behind such an action are to make more money for the company – selfishness and greed – then application of Kant’s theory would lead to the conclusion that such an actor has little moral worth.

Yet this doesn’t even take into account the main premise behind Kant’s theory – that an action must be a moral duty that is upheld by all. In this case, the owner cannot morally replace workers with robots in their factory without also wishing that the same occurs in all factories, as automation is a moral duty for all.

Disregarding for a moment the moral bankruptcy of an individual who would wish a huge portion of the world’s demographic out of work, causing them demonstrable harm, mass automation of all factories also eradicates the main attraction stated by factory owners themselves: Competitive advantage. If all factories did the same, then the economic benefits to a specific factory would disappear. A factory owner would therefore not wish that all factories did the same so a deontist could not consider this action moral.

In summary, adoption of mass automation is a prime example of single-minded greed by a small number of factory owners which will increase inequality, disregarding the welfare of other stakeholders. Utilitarian speculation may be made as an excuse for performing these actions, but deontism shows that the motives behind the action are immoral. Therefore, factory mass automation should not be endorsed.

15: Tom Robiquet, Michael Jones, Nick Smith, James Douglas 

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6 thoughts on “Is Automation Good for Society?

  1. Surely the best thing about the robotic revolution is the replacement of an ever ageing population. Japan, for example, has an average age of over 50, and as life expectancy continues to increase, the labour force available declines. Without the replacement of an inevitably declining available labour force, Japan’s economy would crash, unless they increased the age of retirement – which would further reduce happiness, as the elderly would be unable to enjoy themselves in their final years. In my view, in such societies, the replacement of labour with automation is a good thing, as it is with the aim of adapting and attempting to maintain a status quo.

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  2. Introducing more robotics does create jobs as well as taking them away. People will be needed to build, test, operate and repair the robots. These jobs require a higher skill set and will demand higher pay.
    Even though there won’t be as many jobs available for the population, they will be earning more money, so will be able contribute more to a pension plan. This will enable them to retire earlier paving the way for the next generation to take over.
    Although competition for these jobs will be fierce, the demand will not be as high a before due to the population decline. In addition, there will be people not interested in the robotics. As the number of jobs for this percentage of the population will have decreased, it will allow them to follow a passion and make a living from that.
    The main advantage of automation is that it will increase productivity allowing Japan to build more machines and export them across the globe. This will undoubtedly boost the economy.

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  3. I think the biggest issue with automation is the problem of a redundant human workforce. If you flood the labour market with robots in order to reverse labour force declines, all this will do is lead to a complete automation of the workforce. If you think about it, a workforce that doesn’t get ill, or need holidays or demands better working conditions is a dream for employers. Take the automation of the London underground for example, recent strikes over night services and ticket machines have lead to increasing calls for automation of the whole service. Also, as robots are asked to do increasingly complicated tasks, the ethical issues around whether we should give robots the same rights as humans will only grow louder.

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  4. An interesting article with some good points raised. I think there will always be calls for automation if issues like ageing population persist. It solves problems and there is economic incentive for companies to do it. Therefore it is inevitable. It does seem immoral for it to be done so suddenly though, and maybe companies could make more effort to help the communities affected.

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