Automation: The Start of the Seven Day Weekend

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.

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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!

Human and Shadow Hand

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 

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11 thoughts on “Automation: The Start of the Seven Day Weekend

  1. Automation of labour and work is definitely going to give rise to the production power of the society, especially in the field of industry. And it will replace some positions by mankind. I think the worry on the industry replacement by automation is absurd. Because it will only make the production with lower costs and better organizations, and therefore lower price of the products.

    However, especially when the work are related to ethic issues, the replacement of automation needs to be seriously reconsidered. As this kind of job needs to be involved with not only some kind of laws, but also the judgement of what is right. And most time the computer still can not do very well, as it is not like the computing result either zero or one. It remains concerned on applying the AI to ethic judgement.

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  2. Automation is often viewed as the necessary evil required by us in order to advance as a society. Is the convenience it introduces into industry worthy only to CEO’s and company heads who reap the benefits, rather than the individual whose job has been made redundant? And what about when it goes wrong?

    Consider a manufacturing company today, in which products are created on an assembly line through lean manufacturing to minimise waste. Robots complete the process quicker than human workers can, leading to a larger output and profit. However, demand would also increase; if a breakdown was to occur in the future, it could halt production and the company would not only incur costs but could ruin its reputation with its customers.

    However, an entirely automated workforce is not imminent in the immediate future. Also, with the introduction of new jobs (just to start; setting up, maintaining and replacing the automated units) as previous ones become obsolete, the opportunities presented from expanding to automation may be worth the initial costs.

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  3. Our socioeconomic order is still defined by understandings developed during the 1980s – such as the idea that modernisation and globalisation are unquestionably beneficial and should be pursued ruthlessly, and that society should be competitive and individualistic. This seems to to have created a perfect environment for robots to replace human labour. These are more efficient entities and never susceptible to human error. However, our socioeconomic understandings are fundamentally flawed. Employment carries more than just an economic importance. People ought not be forced into an eternal state of competition or to embrace every modernising, globalising process that cutting edge big businesses thrust upon them. I see no ethical justification for robots replacing people in the workplace. How sustainable is a seven day weekend if we are stripped of our founding social bases and interactions?

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  4. The ethics of automation vary by the industry to which they can be applied. In healthcare particularly, it cannot be denied that automation performs a largely beneficial process when these systems are proving more effective at diagnosis than their human counterparts. In this instance the overall long term benefit to the whole of society of more accurate diagnoses certainly outweighs the downside to the comparatively few doctors who find their jobs threatened.

    In other industries, automation may also lead to a diversification of employment opportunities. For example the increase in efficiency automation provides may lead to an increase in the surrounding non automated processes, hence possibly opening an avenue for more jobs. The worrying part of this concept however is that automation is targeting median skilled jobs, therefore the increase in jobs may arrive in the low-paid sectors, which could polarise the workforce and drive further division in society.

    I see no reason to fear automation of the workplace, I think the fear of automation stems from the fact it is far easy to visualise technology sweeping redundancy into a workforce and much harder to predict the new jobs ever advancing technology will create.

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  5. I do think the increase in automation is concerning. In the theatre industry video projection threatens to wipe out the use of scenic painting although it is possible for the two methods to compliment each other and make a cohesive design. And of course projection mapping still creates jobs within the industry but does reduce the amount of jobs available in the scenic arts department.
    I do however think that whether we like it or not automation is already happening and with the intentions of making life easier and more efficient its hard not to agree that it is an advancement.

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  6. I don’t think it is time to panic we have seen many changes in the world and economies have prospered through changes in the past with advancement of technology. Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt to technology, the race against automation pushes them to improve education and to create new jobs requiring human interaction.

    A reduction in the amount of work done by humans need not be a bad thing we work longer hours than our previous generation and a greater sense of balance would be welcome.

    The people who get the right balance may well become some of the wealthiest and most stable economies on earth

    GB

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    1. Couldn’t agree more with gary!

      This is nothing more than scaremongering luddites afraid of progress. Young people today can learn to use computers and phones far quicker than I can.

      As the jobs of today are made redundant, the generation of tomorrow will be going off to work in offices that I cant even imagine. Think of the benefits to culture that a society might enjoy if people don’t have to work as much. Perhaps the automation revolution will be heralded by a blossoming of artistic and musical talents worldwide.

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  7. Interesting discussions! I’m going to point you along a tangent: Benjamin Kuipers’ article on corporations as “a genus of collectively intelligent artificial creatures”, https://arxiv.org/abs/1204.4116
    Kuipers says: “Our planet is inhabited by two distinct kinds of intelligent beings – individual humans and corporate entities – whose natures and interests are intimately linked. To co-exist well, we need to find ways to define the rights and responsibilities of both individual humans and corporate entities, and to find ways to ensure that corporate entities behave as responsible members of society.” The relationships between jobs, productivity, wealth, and people’s basic needs are complex, so automation is one area where we need clarity about responsible behaviour of both people and corporations.

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  8. Like it or not it’s going to happen. I think we will see a massive reduction in low skill and semi skill work over the next 20 years as cars vacuum cleaners and even car providers become robots. We are entering a period of massive change at an even faster pace than in the past as carbon reduction and automation impact our energy and labour markets. The concern in both cases is that it is the large corporations that are set to be the big winners. Lets hope that the good work done by people like bill gates can ensure that the wealth created by these opportunities will filter down to the most needy in our world. The biggest challenge is finding fulfilling work for those who’s currently skill set can be replaced by robots as it surely will. I think the answer probably lies in the leisure and care and charity sectors.

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