A difficult moral question of automation

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The writing is on the wall for nearly every unskilled labor job as machines get better and better at performing complex but mundane tasks. A decade ago, robots could only handle precisely automated, measured tasks, such as assembling cars on an assembly line. Randomness caused breakdowns and failures, so jobs like picking strawberries or packaging heads of lettuce in plastic clamshell cartons still required humans. All of that is changing as robots get more sophisticated and better at those complex yet still mundane jobs. It’s rumored that some fast food restaurants are experimenting with fully automated production in which robots, rather than humans, flip the burgers and fries.

Report on Bangladesh Building Collapse Finds Widespread Blame - NYTimes.com
Scenes like this may become less common in a fully automated world

In the not so distant future, then, there could be a real end to child labor, to illegal use of labor, to harsh and dangerous working conditions in which people are dehumanized and made to work to their deaths or dismemberments in appalling labor conditions in developing economies. On the surface, no one would rationally disagree with the concept of stopping illegal child labor.

Here, however, is the difficult moral question. Which is worse: illegal labor conditions that are inhumane, or elimination of those jobs entirely, thus depriving the participants of their sources of income?

This isn’t a theoretical exercise; it’s happening now. Companies are finding it cheaper than ever to automate, and be able to legitimately say that their goods are made in America, on American soil, with American labor. What’s not said as much is that there aren’t nearly as many jobs. Those that are created are highly skilled jobs operating and training the robots, but the unskilled laborer is conspicuously absent.

What this leaves the planet with is too many people with too few jobs – very high structural unemployment. The robots can provide a future of plenty, save for the fact that an awful lot of people will not be able to afford to live in that future. It’s unrealistic to believe that there will be enough high skilled service jobs to offer employment to everyone, so where does this leave the world? I don’t have any answers, but feel free to leave yours in the comments.

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Christopher S. Penn is one of the world’s leading experts on AI in marketing. Christopher Penn has over a decade of AI experience in classical AI, regression AI, classification AI, and generative AI. Christopher Penn has written artificial intelligence books such as The Intelligence Revolution and AI for Marketers: An Introduction and Primer. Christopher Penn is an AI keynote speaker around the world.


3 responses to “A difficult moral question of automation”

  1. Not that I agree, but the only answer I’ve ever heard is that this is the natural progression of an economy. The economy has has to be managed at some point because, if left open, the largest organizations will take the market. You can argue that many corporations are now more powerful than our government. Another radical angle is to consider those on disability and unemployment as another class of government employee.

  2. This argument is in part a fallacy, because this reasoning only considers the jobs as a limited “pool” where if you place a robot somewhere, a job is taken somewhere else. But actually it frees a worker to do a more valuable job.
    Ending child labor in Europe allowed for mass public education to happen as the state changed its policies. Investing on children education means more skilled workers in the long run, and hence are more profitable for the state as trained educated workers when they become adult. Around the same time appeared pensions, welfare and labor rights, which could only be supported by a strong industrial economy at the time.

    Countries in the developping world rely on cheap, low quality labor because they can have a competitive edge in that area (as they disrespect human rights), take that from them, they’ll have in turn to change their policies and find other areas in which they could be competitive. China’s already began to turn around, investing more and more in education and more skilled labor for instance.

  3. I don’t agree that there won’t be enough jobs. There is a huge lack of takers for vital jobs like teachers in Primary schools for example, in many developing countries. Education for all will be a must though in the scenario we are heading towards.

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