It’s no longer only unskilled labour and manufacturing jobs that are at risk due to automation. Servicemen and professional workers may soon also find themselves replaced. Most people know IBM’s Watson for its famous win on the game show jeopardy, however, the quick witted AI has a potentially more sinister day job. Putting health care professionals out of work. In 2017 Watson was adopted by the Japanese medical insurance company Fukoku Mutual immediately displacing 34 jobs.
‘Automation of labour and work is not the future. It’s the present.’
Despite this some people envisage an automation Utopia where work is all but eradicated and all of human suffering is contained in where to go on the next holiday.
The Seven Day Weekend
History is littered with examples of advancements and achievements that have conjured up fears of mass unemployment and social instability. But from the printing press and automatic loom to the modern computer, these fears have always been unfounded. Indeed, to a good approximation, development of our technology and automation has been a driving force. Enabling us to transition, from the subsistence based society of our ancestors where almost everyone worked to produce food to the varied and creative world we live in today. In 1920 almost 70% of workers in the US were employed in manual labour, by 1980 it was barely more than 30%.
‘Automation of labour and work is no more new than human advancement.’
In the short term, jobs are bound to be lost. But there is every reason to believe that they will be replaced by new jobs. The Luddite fallacy that there exists a finite amount of work that can be done by a society has been proven wrong time and time again. In fact, some claim that 65% of current students will be employed in jobs that do not yet exist.
In addition to taking the jobs currently done by humans, automation can help people tackle some thorny problems. The robots used in Fukushima power plant are a good example. After the earthquake and tsunami waves struck Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, high radiation made it impossible for humans to check the interior condition. Robots were able to enter into the interior units to help rescue workers and make a better assessment of the damage. Actually, almost all the high risk jobs can be replaced by robots step by step.
We consider the utilitarian perspective, when faced with a moral choice the engineer must act to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Since no one can predict the future we will consider lessons from the past. Drawing on the numerous cases of technological advancement providing a benefit to society, we assert that automation is not new and should be actively encouraged and pursued by moral engineers. The short term loss of jobs for workers today is absolutely worth fuelling the benefits enjoyed by a modern society.
One view of a fully automated future is one where humans are required to perform almost no work at all. Automation could be humanity’s liberation from a basic need for work in order to survive. The provisions for such a future are already being implemented with countries such as Finland implementing a universal basic income for its citizens.
The Luddite Uprising
One weird fact about automation… ROBOTS ARE TAKING YOUR JOBS.
‘as machines continue to invade society, … it is human labour itself that is gradually rendered redundant’
It easy to be optimistic about the future of automation. Even more so when we Engineers are classed as highly skilled and sought after professionals. However, think for a moment about the 45% of the workforce whose jobs are at risk, will automation cause mass unemployment? Will the potential $2 trillion savings be redistributed fairly, if at all?
The pace at which automation is changing industries means that employment markets aren’t prepared, even in Silicon Valley, only 1.8% of workers are employed in new industries. Where exactly are the ‘new jobs’ going to come from and how will a major shift in skillsets be accounted for? Will the $2 trillion help to fund reeducation? Similar questions were asked by the Luddites 200 years ago and they are arguably even more relevant today!
By using a virtue ethical framework, emphasising the moral character of an engineer outlined by the Engineering Council, we aim to justify the application of automation:
‘Engineers work to enhance the welfare of others, … whilst paying due regard to the environment and sustainability of resources. … and commitment to enhance the wellbeing of society’
In the short-term, automation will result in job losses with any new jobs created solely for highly skilled workers. Engineers are responsible for enhancing the welfare and wellbeing of society. For most people work is a fulfilling way to contribute to society, those that don’t enjoy work still fear unemployment. The introduction of automation disembodies the workforce, creating a greater divide between the robot owners and the unemployed. Major job displacement will result in a negative society and reinforce inequality.
Our phones and computers are changing the way we work with and process information. In a similar way, automation will erode our skillsets and make us become dependent unable to perform without the aid of automatons.
Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution greenhouse gasses have drastically increased 40%. At this stage, even a small change in global temperature would have vast implications. The mass production model that brought a high quality of life in the early 20th Century has transformed into a society that is producing more waste than ever before. Automation introduces a more efficient method of mass producing products. This means that in some instances useless goods will be being produced 24/7, draining global resources and going against the duty of an engineer to create sustainable solutions.
It becomes clear that the main principles of automation are in direct contrast to the ethical template outlined by the Engineering Council. Automation only helps to increase inequality and pillage resources. A moral engineer would seek to create jobs not destroy them.
Do you believe automation will lead to the Utopian future? Or are you a Luddite? Human advancement or human redundancy?
Please share your views in the comments section below.
Group 1: Max Champneys, Yunhao Lu, Linlin Li & Joe Banks