Can we automate ethically?

Tim Olsen, Intelligent Automation Director at Hays

In 1779, Ned Ludd, a weaver from Anstey, near Leicester, England, broke two stocking frames in a fit of rage. Ned’s actions created quite a stir and English textile workers, protesting against manufacturers who used machines in what they called "a fraudulent and deceitful manner" as they feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines replaced their role in the industry became known as ‘Luddites’. Sources disagree as to whether Ned was an actual person but the term Luddite” is now widely used to describe people who dislike new technology.  

Ned and his fellow protesters might not have realised it, but they were witnessing the first industrial revolution, that of mechanisation, steam power, and weaving looms. This was followed by the second industrial revolution; mass production, electricity and assembly lines, the third; of computers, electronics, and physical robots, and now, we are on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution; intelligent automation, AI, the Internet of Things.

Automation is key to future productivity. Ned might have lost his job as a weaver, but had the Northern Mills not adopted the weaving looms the reality is that many more would have eventually lost their jobs as the industry became uncompetitive. Even after automation, Styal Quarry Bank Mill in Manchester took apprentices out of dire workhouses (90 at peak) and educated them, fed them, and gave them employment maintaining the machines.

The British Government recognises in fact that “The problem for the UK labour market and our economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few. The UK led the First Industrial Revolution because we embraced new technologies and the opportunities that they create. The risk we face is not a robot takeover of our workplaces, but that our lack of adoption and the reluctance of businesses and the Government to lead the way in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will mean other countries will seize the initiative and take the advantage of new technologies, not least the growth and jobs they bring, while we are left behind.” Source: Automation and The Future of Work.

For this reason, many believe that automation is a necessity if we are to be competitive and grow our economy, but can we replace workers with software and retain a clear conscience?

One of the socio-economic challenges arising from automation is that the sectors of society are not impacted equally. It is the lower-skilled, more disenfranchised sectors that tend to be more easily automated as a result of the repetitive nature of the work. It falls on all of us implementing automation to take ownership and mitigate the negative economic impacts of our programmes.

Organisations will take different approaches to automation. It is true to say that there are varying levels of ethical maturity evidenced at present.

Pramod Khargonekar, Vice Chancellor for Research at University of California, Irvine, and Meera Sampath, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at the State University of New York, wrote a paper on this subject; “Socially Responsible Automation: A Framework for Shaping the Future.”

In the paper they claim that automation absolutely can provide a positive impact for humanity, but to achieve this, organisations need to progress through a variety of ‘levels’ whereby socio-economic impacts are mitigated:

Level 0: Cost-focused automation. At the lowest level of the pyramid, the key objective is to attain financial benefit. Whilst the socio-economic costs are high, these programmes inevitably fail to gain the support of the workforce and meet resistance throughout their lifecycle.

Level 1: Performance-driven automation. This takes account of human interaction with the automation, humans are used within the process to make experience-based decisions or interact where the process falls beyond the capability of the robot.

Whilst the primary objective now focuses on overall performance rather than cost, there is still no real value associated with employee wellbeing or social benefit. Profit remains the key driver.

Level 2: Worker-centred automation. At this level, the organisation becomes conscious of the impact of automation and acts primarily to improve the overall welfare of the employee rather than solely organisational profit. The objective shifts to encourage new forms of human augmentation.
While this now results in an employee-led approach, the wider economic and social impacts are not at the forefront of the organisational strategy.

Level 3: Socially responsible automation. At the top of the pyramid, societal wellbeing is key. Automation produces more net roles for humans through growth and productivity, and robots are designed to assist humans in their roles. Business leaders commit to build new revenue streams and developing growth.

The key considerations are:

  1. When deploying automation, the overall objective should be to provide improved employment for workers, and society as a whole. Automation should improve productivity, but cost should not be the key metric against which the benefits of automation are measured. Instead, factors such as wellbeing and self-development should be the overriding objective.
  2. Automation must result in net employment growth for the economy. More jobs should be forthcoming as a result of improved productivity than are lost from it.
  3. It is critical that the workforce can gain skills quickly and be mobilised without lag to transition from increasingly redundant skillsets to emerging ones in high demand.

As I sit at my keyboard and ponder over this conundrum, my lawn is being diligently and quietly cut by a robot mower. Not having to mow my lawn myself gives me greater flexibility and convenience. I have the time to focus on my work and develop myself personally, and perhaps even contribute to the knowledge of others. No one is worse off as a result, indeed the manufacturer has grown their workforce and profits as a result of my purchase.

We should not fear automation itself, however, we should remain mindful of its impacts and act with conviction and deliberation to ensure it has positive impacts across all of society, not just the fortunate few.

Author

Tim Olsen
Intelligent Automation Director, Hays Technology

Tim worked in Project Management for 20 years developing solutions to improve user journeys and experience for blue chip clients. More recently he built the UK’s largest RPA CoE from scratch and went on to help organisations overcome their barriers to scaling automation. He is a thought leader and evangelist for Intelligent Automation.

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