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.
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