What are the moral implications of increasing the role of automation?

Automation is increasingly becoming a part of day to day life, from self-service check outs to driverless cars, propelling wide-reaching change which could have significant ramifications for the shape of society in the future. From factories in China to McDonalds burger flippers, automation has enormous potential to improve efficiency and productivity but often at the cost of jobs. This blog will investigate the moral implications of the robotic uprising.

Robot Burger

Automation in the Manufacturing industry

The growing role of automation in manufacturing has had a significant effect and will continue doing so.

The main concern attributed to growing levels of automation is the perceived loss of jobs. In developed countries, however, the reality is that automation increases employment.  Goods can be produced with a higher consistency and for less cost. This leads to factories expanding. The few jobs lost in the short term due to automation are replaced with more jobs in the long term. This can be seen with the Nissan plant in Sunderland which has recently secured Infiniti cars, raising the number of jobs at the factory to 6700 and securing 40000 jobs down the supply chain.

In developing countries automation is also beneficial. It improves safety, working conditions and the quality of the products while maintaining the number of employees. Improvements come due to the automation of dull, dirty, dangerous and difficult tasks. Such tasks are typically prone to human error as the operators get fatigued leading to higher levels of waste and potentially dangerous situations.

Automation allows the quicker production of products and therefore increases the effectiveness and efficiency of processes. This would inevitably lead to less plants like the Foxconn factory in China, where 120 hours of overtime are done in an average month and the conditions have lead to worker suicides

While the increase in automation clearly offers advantages, there are disadvantages as well. The lack of versatility of robot systems makes adapting for new models a challenge. Automation also requires significant initial capital which some companies cannot afford. Finally, the overall effect of reshoring jobs worldwide leads to a net reduction in jobs. This is particularly important in developing countries where there is no social security net so a job in poor conditions is better than no job at all.

From a utilitarianism standpoint, the increase in automation is beneficial to society as it leads to more effective and efficient production, increasing the profits and output of the companies and also increases the tax gained by the government. Additionally, it only sacrifices the few employees to help the many.

The issue with this is it ignores the damage done to the people who will lose their jobs and from the point of view of the freedom principle, the pleasure for the many negatively affect the pleasure of the few, questioning the morality of the growth of automation.

However, in contemporary society, the financial benefits and growing consumer expectations for the reduction in the price of goods, mean the options of manufacturing firms are to embrace automation or be left behind. Companies should be ready to commit to automation as it is an inevitable and desirable consequence of the competition between companies to reach the best quality and value products on the market.

Automation in the Service industry

Increasing automation can provide significant benefits to business owners and investors but these are not necessarily shared with the employees. Momentum Machines have designed a robot which prepares gourmet burgers and costs significantly less than the amount an average fast food restaurant in America spends on kitchen staff. A robot could theoretically perform the same task without having to worry about morale and sick days and in far less space than that required for a person, thus increasing space for seating within the restaurant or allowing rent savings.

This is terrible news for the huge numbers of people who work in this industry however such as the 1.8 million workers currently employed by McDonalds. The average age of fast food workers is 35, often therefore with a family to support, for whom the loss of jobs which automation brings could be catastrophic. There is also a knock on effect for society at large, more than half of the families of fast food workers in the US are on some kind of public assistance (a total of $7 billion) and significant job losses would only make this worse. This problem is not just limited to fast food; robots which suck oranges from trees, sense their surroundings and act as security guards are threatening the jobs that have traditionally provided a public sector safety net for those with few alternative options.

The traditional economic argument is that jobs lost in more menial labour will “free up” workers for better paid and more interesting jobs in other fields but the unique nature of information technology is starting to throw doubt on this theory. For example, Google and Facebook are huge globe-spanning companies with billions of dollars of revenue but which employ very few people relative to their size; Facebook employs less than 15,000 compared to the 1.8 million of McDonalds.

Furthermore, while corporate profits soar, workers’ wages have been deteriorating, driving inequality. Relative to inflation, average American wages reached their peak in 1973 and the economic ‘law’ that wages are proportional to productivity is starting to appear less certain. Karabarbounis and Neiman concluded that these declines resulted from “efficiency gains in capital producing sectors often attributed to advances in information technology and the computer age” while the reduction in quality jobs post-recession and proliferation of part time work and zero-hour contracts was described by Autor as primarily due to “the automation of routine work”.

Considering a deontological framework of ethics, while the benefits of automation to corporations are significant, those with capital also have an obligation to provide jobs and wages, not just seek their own profit at others expense. Automation should therefore only be implemented when there is no other choice and when new jobs are created to compensate for its introduction.

7: Oliver Meikle, Ola Mathisrud, Peter Champneys, Mayank Sahoo

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6 thoughts on “What are the moral implications of increasing the role of automation?

  1. Automation is an ethical dilemma myself I am for it as for large factories as you have already pointed it keeps them more competitive. This in turn is what allows them to employ more people in the long run. Alongside this higher paying jobs have been created such as the teams of people who design, install, commission automation machines. Not to mention the fact that some sort of maintenance team would need to be in place after then to ensure the robots worked. I believe automation if it is a positive improvement should be implemented and if left to long till there is no other choice you would be too late.

    Simon, Automation Engineer

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  2. I agree with the comments and conclusion in this article on the benefits of automation in manufacturing. My view of this is based on observations from economic history and international trade. Marxist theory argues that the return required by investors on capital is inevitably at the cost of real wages. However this does not consider that, whilst this may happen in the short term, in the long run the interests of capital and labour are consistent (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765577652/Capital-vs-labor-2-its-not-such-a-simple-matter.html?pg=all). So, whilst labour’s share of GDP has declined since the 1970’s, as technological advance has supported productivity gains, so the higher profits resulting have grown the overall ‘size of the cake’ from which both the owners of capital and workers benefit.

    The Stopler-Samuelson Theorum in 1941 also supported the view that one factor had to be at the expense of the other but this strict interpretation has since been evolved by others so that increases in trade are thought to compensate for any such negative effects. Whether this is achieved consistently is impacted by globalisation (The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974). Wallerstein argues that the presence of coersive employment practices in what he defined as ‘peripheral countries’ may actually increase inequality and workers poverty. However the low cost of production in these countries has kept inflation at historically low levels and protected some of the most vulnerable in society, on low and fixed incomes, and should allow for greater investment in sustainability and living standards as countries across the world industrialise.

    In the UK during the 1960s and 1970s, labour militancy and the consequent days lost to industrial disputes were key factors in driving industrialists to invest in capital equipment at the expense of jobs. In what Wallerstein described as ‘core’ countries and, to some degree in ‘semi-peripheral’ countries, desirable regulation to raise employment standards in the form of maximum working hours, higher health and safety standards, environmental regulation and human rights legislation went hand-in-hand with this capital intensification.. It does though imposes a cost burden on industry that can only be shouldered as a result of the benefits of technological advances enabling manufacturing automation and profitability. This article from The Economist in November 2013 (http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21588900-all-around-world-labour-losing-out-capital-labour-pains) addresses this and, in my view, highlights the need for developing economies to embrace simliar labour conditions as a by-product of industrialisation and automation.

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  3. Whilst this article provides a strong debate on the moral implication of automation, I believe that there is a greater nuance into the effect on jobs that hasn’t been fully explored as well as a challenge to the utilitarian argument on communities. Below is not so much as a rebuttal, but a genuine ask for more information.

    Whilst statistics and anecdotal evidence show how automation actually creates jobs, in order to maintain new machinery for example, there is no evidence within the blog to suggest that those who lose their menial jobs are able, through education or qualification, to apply for these new, technical jobs. An example to my mind is traditional sign painting, which disappeared as a job with the rise of printing. In this instance there was a hollowing out of an artesian role which was replaced with technical jobs. Essentially, when new jobs are created through technological advance, are they likely to be like-for-like to the ones made redundant? If the answer is no, then whilst new skills and trades can be learned the reality is that regardless of overall employment figures, automation changes the type of employee needed, creating winners and losers.

    The moral argument then, must be made in defence of these ‘losers’. The article does mention that robots are “threatening the jobs that have traditionally provided a public sector safety net for those with few alternative options”. Yet this is not fully explored. What is the social effect on communities when their main economic income is removed? Taking the recent Port Talbot steel crisis and the older, coal mining closures into account, it is clear that a utilitarian argument is little comfort to local communities that rely on one main source of employment. The danger of automation is that it could have a similar effect on communities – stripping them of their jobs. Admittedly, automation brings with it new jobs, unlike redundancy as a result of globalisation, but both are similar in their effect on the ‘losers’ in this deal. In order to win the moral argument for automation, I think there needs to be greater research into how these theoretical losers are brought back into the economy.

    This need for research also extends into the utilitarian argument, does automation really profit the many over the few? On the face of it, that is a silly question due to all the reasons given above. However, I believe that there is nuance on the scale of benefit. In order to remain articulate I’ll just use one example – a trusty MacDonalds.

    If 50 job redundancies mean cheaper burgers for a community of more than 50 that is a utilitarian benefit. Yet on an economic scale the effect on each individual involved is different. If profits are kept then the owner, and their family, benefits massively. If they are reflected in cheaper prices then the community benefits slightly. Regardless, the redundant are effected greatly, begging the question, is the tiny economic benefit of the majority actually a greater good than the great economic disadvantage of a minority, especially when only one or two (the owners) actually benefit to any great extent? Put another way, when asked, would you agree to pay an extra X amount on your Happy Meal in order to safeguard a local job? Secondly to this, if those 50 workers live in the same community, and their redundancy affects their family living in that area, how many people who use that local MacDonalds are actually benefiting as a whole? A bit of a minefield I know, but that is essentially my query – does the overbearing simplicity of the utilitarian argument actually hold up when transferred to local communities and their interrelated economic realities?

    Again, none of this comes from any expertise from my part. It is just a collection of questions that I think the blog, in its understandable brevity, was not able to cover. I’d love to hear the response though!

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  4. Whilst increasing automation in the service industry may well reduce the number of jobs in that sector, it will also have a detrimental effect on customers. We are living in an increasingly individualised society and the number of people living alone is rising year on year. With ongoing changes happening to traditional family structures and a job market that expects flexibility and mobility from workers, people are increasingly living away from their family and/or friends. For many, a visit to a supermarket or fast-food restaurant represents much more than just the acquirement of goods. When we are served by a sales assistant they are doing more than just providing a service; customer and employee are engaging in social interaction. This interaction has a influence on an individual’s wellbeing, both customer and worker. When an older person’s only form of social contact may be their weekly trip to the supermarket and the brief chat to the check-out assistant, we must question the morality of taking that contact away. With increasing rhetoric around corporate social responsibility, perhaps companies should give more attention to the interactions that occur within their stores and restaurants.

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  5. This post has very intriguing points and I very much agree with your conclusion as well! As I was reading this, the depiction of automation as full replacement of a human being made me wonder what value a person brings to his work place. What does a human being bring to the till that a machine can’t? A human being brings life, interaction and love. Things a machine can never replace. (touching on automation in service sectors).
    So instead of thinking of automation as a “replacement” or as “the only solution” to an efficiency-problem, we should think of it as a possible mean that we are fully in control of. If we believe that it is a “replacement” or “the only solution” we will think of it as inevitable, it will become a core requirement to gain competitive advantage. Whereas if we think of it as a possible mean it opens up doors to other means/solutions.
    When you write “automation should be implemented when there is no other choice” I first disagreed, as it sounds very restricting. Automation is depending on the circumstances an incredible tool for expansion and growth which can’t be ignored in this fast changing environment. Ignoring it would steal organisations the chance to develop.
    But giving it more thought, implementing automation only when there is no other choice, could be the best innitiation for innovation. If there is a lack of resource, one has to become creative and find a different solution. That is how so many inventions came to life.
    I believe organisations are more than capable of being innovative and creative. We live in an age where innovation is a key strategy for so many firms!

    I was also thinking about what objectives every organisation has. Thinking about CSR etc, an organisation needs to realise what their role and impact in society is.

    All in all I think we need to shift our understanding of automation, as that will change our approach to implementing it. Instead of it being a necessity or a trend to follow it needs to become an option.

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  6. Whilst one may argue that increased automation in a workplace may improve the safety and working conditions of the employees, I don’t think more machines would necessarily lead to a better work environment. Automation would increase the amount of human to machines interactions, while decrease the amount of human to human interactions. However, for many people, having the chance to work with and interact with other people is massive boost to their well-being, as we now live in a society where more and more people live on their own. As such, while automation is likely to increase the productivity for many companies, I believe that in the long term, it could have drastic effects on the way that we live our lives. If society ever comes to a point where people feel that human to human interactions are simply becoming a waste of time (compared to human to machine interactions), I think that is certainly not a society most of us would like to life in, but at that point, it would probably be way too late to go back.

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