Burger Flipping Robot

Automation: A Tool For Progression?… Or A Recipe For Disaster?

Group 56

You might have heard of Flippy, a controversial burger-flipping robot with the sole purpose of cooking you a perfect patty. It has been successfully implemented in a Californian burger chain but was recently taken offline for being too slow. With such headlines it’s easy to overlook and even ridicule the impressive rise of automation and its potentially devastating impact on jobs and inequality.

This is a highly debated issue, when asked if future automation will remove more jobs than it creates, 48% of experts thought it would.

Automation: a tool for progression…

As new technologies develop, a calamitous loss of jobs is often forecast. However, it often does not result in the apocalyptic event we expect. In reality, technology simply changes the nature of the jobs available – increasing productivity – rather than usurping the role of the worker; whether it be the Luddites and mechanical looms or the more recent invention of the computer. Automation will be no different.

This flawed belief stems from the lump of labour fallacy, as old jobs are lost there will be no new jobs to replace them. Engineers have no moral obligation to slow automation and progression, as those displaced from jobs will find jobs in new sectors that we can’t imagine right now. Often, more work is created to sustain the replacing technology. One survey suggests that 65% of current students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.

Automation can also be used to transform dangerous professions. For example, jobs in radioactive environments, could be eradicated as well as many menial jobs.  Engineers continue to develop technologies that improve the quality of life for many. Freeing undesirable jobs increases overall productivity of the economy and shifts the job market to higher skilled work. As automation becomes a greater part of our world we will move to professions that are characteristically human, such as care work, that involve elevated levels of empathy. Industry statistics show that an ever-increasing proportion of the population are shifting towards the service sector; which are still jobs that mostly humans do. This is the fastest growing sector in China, having doubled in the last two decades.

Automation not only brings us better productivity but also better products and services. IBM’s Watson, an incredible medical diagnostic tool, and similar data-gorging AI can often perform specific tasks to a higher standard than an expert human. Why should engineers not embrace a technology that will benefit the majority? It would be more unethical to abandon it. The NHS reports 40,000 deaths per year from misdiagnosis by human error.

Is it worth so many dying and impeding progress simply to save a few jobs?

At the end of the day, automation is inevitable as it produces significant benefits for humankind at very little effort and is the only way we can further increase our standard of living.

…or a recipe for disaster

Granted, jobs have always been created as technological advances have been made. During the industrial revolution, industries requiring unskilled manual labour were dramatically changed causing widespread unemployment.  However between 2000 and 2010, 87% of manufacturing jobs were lost due to automation and 45% of jobs that are currently held by humans can and will be easily automated by 2028. One could argue that this resembles issues seen before – it is simply another technological revolution that we will adjust to.

The main difference this time, with the advent of machine learning, is that many skilled jobs considered only capable by humans will be done much faster and better by a robot. If IBM’s Watson can do a doctor’s job faster and better, what is to stop automation moving into other professional sectors?

Dinosaur Plants
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Even jobs in creative sectors are threatened by automation with AI programs able to create their own music, art and sculptures. Take this example of an artwork that has used deep neural networks to merge the pages from a horticulture book with one of dinosaurs.

Soon a client will be able to put a couple of ideas into a computer to produce a design, replacing the need for a graphic designer.

Even if more skilled jobs are created, inevitably there will be job losses. Most jobs are unskilled: we are simply equipping the higher skilled with better tools and any new jobs will require an entirely different skillset or background – unattainable for the person who’s just been made redundant. Even if we did agree that “it’ll all be fine in the long term”, who are we, as engineers, to totally disrupt the lives of many?

The new jobs that will be created from automation will soon be replaced by more machines and so the cycle continues, only faster, until we are at a point where there are no jobs suited for humans. One study suggests this could be within 120 years.

If we have no jobs and wealth in the economy is being generated by machines, how will the wealth be distributed? Chances are it will be unevenly. By automating processes and machines we’re supporting a descent into further global inequality with even greater wealth held by fewer people. We will be left in a world where all the wealth is owned by executives left in charge of mostly automated robots. Unemployment will skyrocket, people will lack purpose and quality of life for the majority will decline and our place in this world come into question.

Further Remarks:

So should we worry about this? Will nature take its course? Eventually yes, progress is inevitable, but engineers must be careful when designing products to consider the impacts it will have on society. Legislators must be prepared for the drastic changes in our lifestyle to ensure that the quality of life is improved for everyone. A universal income system such as the one trialled in Finland will be necessary when people are no longer required to work.

284 thoughts on “Automation: A Tool For Progression?… Or A Recipe For Disaster?

  1. Excellent article outlining the pros and cons of automation highlighting the worst and best case scenarios. It reflects wider debates happening within the Tech industry such as Elon Musk’s comments on automation (https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/17/elon-musk-robots-will-be-able-to-do-everything-better-than-us.html) showing the pertinence of the author’s arguments. It also demonstrates that this is not just driven by grassroots concerns but is reflected at every level including with the industries driving the process. A debate around the issue is crucial as it highlights the issue to governments so they can create legislation to facilitate the automation process and ensure that workers displaced from current industries and jobs are helped into new careers.

    1. It’s a good article, very good structure for a blog post as it invites the reader to make their own contribution to the discussion. You can’t put advances in technology back into the box even if they have negative implications for employment, however much you might want to. Nor should any attempt be made to hold back engineering advancement on ethical grounds, as it is the duty of society in general to make sure people do not suffer. Engineers have the task of helping us do more difficult things with greater ease. Capitalism uses engineering, including robotics, to do basic things in greater volume at less cost. Robots can do things humans cannot, and this, ethically, is where the energies of the engineers should be directed. We do not need engineers and robots to make bread, we can do this already and it is an entirely valid and satisfying way for a human to make a living.

      1. I’d agree with you up to a point. Advancement is important and we should not backtrack on ideas that improve our lives. However i don’t think we should ever blindly progress without considering the consequences first. there have been countless examples of engineering mistakes where ethical issues have been disregarded in the name of progress take the challenger disaster for example.

        We don’t need a robot to make bread but it makes our lives a hell of a lot easier and gives us time to do other things. implementation of AI into other parts of our lives will boost productivity. engineers should pursue every route to make our lives better

    2. Blimey, that article is fairly terrifying!

      Elon touched upon something not talked about in the blog too – the idea of “deep intelligence networks”. From a utilitarian standpoint, this is a major threat to society as a whole. These sort of advancements to AI is a window for exploitation, allowing distributive injustice of major values gained.

      I also completely agree with you; debate is essential to ensure that legislative frameworks are in place early, to ensure that progression is done properly and fairly, but also to prevent unnecessary widescale unemployment for the sake of productivity and sales.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. In terms of the pros and cons, I have to agree with the previous comment in that the outlines of the article are highlighted and discussed well thus creating a fair argument. Manufacturers need to be conscious about the advancements in technology that would replace even more jobs creating a poor quality of life for an unemployed society. Every step made toward more advanced machinery, may well be 3 steps back for employees and the economy. Robots should be an extension of what humans are capable of, not surpassing us as our superiors.

    1. yes, we need to be careful about how AI is implemented. it could definitely have the capability to surpass us and it could happen terrifyingly quickly!! we ensure that the use of AI is used for all of our benefit. This could be achieved via legislation and social policy reform.

  3. I agree with the comments so far, pros and cons is a great way to approach the topic. AI and automation can be a double-edged sword so its vital to be realistic about how it can cause conflicting outcomes within the job market. For example you have mentioned the impact of AI in the arts, but I’d have to disagree with the suggestion that designs role will be made redundant by tech. The creative industries have always gone hand in hand with technological developments (from pigment to film and photography) and it has helped artists push the realm of human thought. Artists are first and foremost thinkers which is man’s greatest tool.Grassroots creative jobs have also benefited from of more visibility through websites, crowdfunding etc aswell as small scale machinery like 3D printers or home recording studios (this is true of most sectors beyond the arts). I think an interesting question in response to your article would be whether it is the break-down between product and maker that happened throughout the 20th century (Walter Benjamin writes great stuff on this) is seeing a change this century? Individual people have much greater understanding and control over technology now, are we seeing a shift away from industrial business models?

    1. The idea of design-roles being made redundant by technology is farcical, how could a robot replicate the natural creativity of humans?

      Technological development should go hand-in-hand with the human workforce, and I think that is the way that it is going for design.
      One of the developments in this area is called “Algorithm-driven tools” (https://algorithms.design/). These are designed to help create modern web-sites, with tools for choosing templates and styles, and tools which crop and retouch photos – all automatically. Advancements such as this for this sector, are very exciting and can help small businesses level the playing field with large, monopolizing companies.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Humans may be the greatest thinkers and, for a while at least that may be the case

      For now, AI is simply a tool that we can use to further our creativity much like the graphics tablet. however, i wouldn’t underestimate the ability of machine learning to understand how we tick and create art from scratch. Even since this blog was written, a fairytale has been completely written by a machine for the first time. I for one find that amazing – and fairly terrifying

  4. “when asked if future automation will remove more jobs than it creates, 48% of experts thought it would.” – so 52% think that it won’t. I’ve seen that vote split before recently, but shall refrain from commenting. Clearly, in this case there is a roughly 50:50 split in opinion.

    The interesting thing about Flippy the robot is the reason for its employment/exploitation/implementation in the first place. CaliBurger were training people to flip burgers only to have them leave soon afterwards, therefore the high worker turnover and the costs in training were the motivators. The motivation wasn’t “we could save on wages” but “we keep training workers only to have them leave”.

    A concern I have is that we’re not running out of people. Moreover, we have an economic system that is obsessed with growth. The obsession with growth means that we are always looking to increase productivity. For the last 20 years, the West has increased its productivity by outsourcing jobs, meaning that wage bills are reduced. Automation reduces the bill further. Then what?

    So we have a dangerous cocktail. More and more humans – a quarter of whom are 15 years old or younger. More and more pressure to reduce wages.

    For me, I’d like to encourage a rethink of our economic system. To my (maybe not very informed) knowledge our current system is based on the Bretton Woods agreement and it has been over 65 years since the Second World War has ended. The world has changed.

    One thing people can do, and many are doing, is return to natural crafts. To own a hand-crafted item, or to make one, is not only pleasurable but gives people purpose and value. With the advent of a universal income system, we could include the means to allow people to indulge in meaningful and fulfilling occupations.

    As a final comment, can you point me to where the ethical support for both sides of your topic is please?

    1. Flippy was indeed designed to remove the need for constant training of new staff. Humans having their own interests and motivations without doubt makes them unreliable workers in comparison to a robot. This exactly how robots were named, “robota” in Czech directly translates to slave labour. No 17-year-old looking to get an entry level job will be able to compete with a steadfast, inexpensive machine. As sallyd has said, these are some of the people most at risk as AI dominates these “menial jobs”. How are young people supposed to gain experience? This will become more of a problem…
      The Bretton Woods agreement was abolished in 1973 but a similar system is still in place. A total rethink of our economic system is surely out of the question. Many lose out in our current one but I can’t think of a successful system that has worked without growth – as unsustainable as it is. We are moving towards a fairer system such as the introduction of minimum wage and potentially the new living wage but if less and less people are working how will this be distributed.
      AI will make our lives better but I think it is naive to think we will all suddenly have the luxury of time to pursue our hobbies. We are often promised great things from new technology. People said the same about the internet in the early 90s yet the of retirement has risen to 65 and there’s talk of further increases. Nevertheless, with the sudden boom in technology use and worries about data use, there may very well be a backlash return to more wholesome activities.
      We were unsure of how the blog would be marked and erred towards readability and engagement over specifically mentioning the different theories used to formulate our arguments. However, the ethical cycle was used during debate and whilst writing each argument.
      Regrettably we neglected to mention that:
      The tool for progression argument was based principally on utilitarian ethics. All agreed that AI would be beneficial for humanity as a whole despite numerous job losses.
      Ethics of care were considered when explaining how engineers went about solving the problems faced by consumers: 40,000 deaths per year from misdiagnoses in the NHS alone could be reduced by a tool developed by an engineer. This is the formation of a trusting relationship between those who create the medical tools and the consumers.
      With the 52-48% split, it is a contentious issue. What one engineer would consider a good thing may not be what another does. Even if both engineers have the appropriate moral values for the job they may hold different values to various levels of importance changing the course of action they would take. This becomes especially evident with such uncertain outcomes.
      The recipe for disaster argument rested solely on Duty ethics. Many would agree that is morally wrong to remove the need for someone’s livelihood and purpose. Who are we as engineers to make that conscious decision?

  5. Can engineers be mindful of the effects on employment when developing automation products? Is this an engineers responsibility, the company who uses the product or only for governments and policy makers? I fear the marketplace is too powerful a beast to allow engineers this luxury. We so often do not know the true effect of each use of automation until it is fully implemented -as is mentioned the spin off jobs in some cases can be as great as any job losses – even to allow policy makers to control its use. The one thing I think we can probably all say is that these changes will hit those who are unable to gain new skills and the young who require entry level jobs to get started. Even if we cannot control the products that are developed we will have to deal these consequences.

    1. I agree, the marketplace largely sways the decisions that companies and, indeed, their engineers makes. However, I would argue that engineers still have a responsibility to evaluate the impact their products would have on society and influence their design decisions based upon this.

  6. It is clear that automation is already having a significant impact on many professions, but it would be useful if the author could clarify how these are improving “quality of life” and how this is measured. The author also refers to “standard of living” and although they are sometimes interchangeable they are different concepts.

    I thought of the introduction of self-service checkouts within supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. This feels like more of a cost cutting measure than a development aimed at influencing quality of life or standard of living – you could argue that it makes a negligible difference to consumer convenience in comparison to the traditional provision. For a company benefiting so much from the local economy and infrastructure the ease with which local workers are discarded to increase profit feels inevitable but doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

    I would be interested to know what jobs the author considers are “menial or undesirable” and whether they feel this perception is shared by all members of the community. I agree with Sally’s comment but hope engineers do feel a sense of responsibility whether that be in the planning stage, or its implementation and beyond. I hope they recognise that with their expertise they are a key stakeholder in the development of policy and legislation – is the author aware of any examples of focus groups or government consultations pertaining to this topic?

    The author refers to care work as an example of employment in the service sector that may be suitable to replace lost jobs though I am curious whether they think empathy is a trait inherent to all humans? I would also add the care sector is an interesting area as automation is changing the way care is delivered on a day to day basis. Telehealth care equipment that links the client to community response teams via intercom systems are working to maintain independence and in turn reduce the need for care workers in certain circumstances. Examples include medication dispensers, smoke sensors or door sensors; falls equipment such as bed sensors and wrist/neck pendants etc. These are positive developments for maintaining independence for the client but again inevitably impact on the practical role required of care workers. Interestingly despite a loneliness epidemic in our country I wonder if there is a difference in the value placed on social support by both the author and by cash strapped councils – this conflict perhaps transfers into other domains too. Thanks for the read – very interesting!

    1. No use being a King Canute and fighting the tide. AI is here and the article rightly
      highlights our ability to create and more importantly implement an ethical framework to make it work for us. I agree with some of the other comments. Our history is littered with examples where such innovation rarely serves those that need it most. Such is the nature of exploitation. Looking at the current international political landscape do you think we are capable of implementing ethical frameworks?
      As a social worker I cannot help but get excited about the huge potential for AI to help a care sector struggling to find a workforce willing and able to help people with complex needs remain independent. From helping families keep connected and assist at a touch of button to intelligent devices reducing the need for personal lifting and handling.
      So it’s here now we just need the right people to guide us through it.

      1. I’d like to think we are capable of implementing ethical frameworks. Sadly, exploitation of technology has often benefited the few and previous legislation has been slow to act on people capitalising off it. Legislators will have to act quicker to ensure people are not left behind. There is huge potential for AI and robotics to benefit so many sectors and it would be great to see how it could improve areas such as the care sector that have been poorly neglected

    2. I think an inherent improvement to quality of life – which may be the final destination for AI advancements – is freedom! Never having to work again, imagine that? Currently, the life of a human revolves completely around working. 5/7 days of the week spent just to have enough money to eat, sleep and live. The potential for AI to release us from these tasks is exciting. Humans can spend time doing enjoyable pastimes and hobbies instead! The key factor here though, is distributive justice – can humans progress through to the automation phase fairly?

      It is the transition period that will be the key issue. Menial jobs, talked about being the first to be lost to AI, are as you mentioned, things like cashiers, manual labourers, transport operatives etc., and the issue with these job losses are the displacement of workers who may not be able to move into higher-skill work from lack of education or privilege. The quality of life will drop fairly quickly, at first unhappiness and distress, progressing to a lack of self-worth from being replaced, and concluding with a large proportion of society being depressed from lack of money and purpose. Although this may sound extreme, I think it is the hard truth of the matter, and is the crux for successful implementation of automation. This transition period is the area which needs the most-attention, and the government need to have measures in place to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum.

      Your points regarding the positives of advancements to social care are warming, it is nice to hear the benefits of technology for people who need it most. I also absolutely agree that some humans do not possess empathy as a trait; current care services within the public sector are short of staff because of it!

      Thanks for the in-depth comments!

  7. Brilliant article highlighting the main positive and negative arguments for automation. I found the point about people doing more ‘human’ jobs, such as care work very interesting. This sector is very neglected so this movement towards these types of jobs could be very beneficial to society. I agree that legislators and engineers will have to be very aware of the products constructed and how they can impact society, this should be a consideration in each project.

    1. Thank you for the comment!
      As TomC mentions above there’s a double edge sword in how automation and care work intertwine. Having more people to care for the sick and elderly is ideal and ties in well with a move towards more careful consideration for the relationships we have. But in an effort to cut costs is it not likely that councils may instead remove care workers as replace them with aforementioned alarm systems and robotic carers. I think we should be careful to not lose our humanity and extreme efforts to reduce costs should be weighed against the quality of care we provide to those depending on us.

  8. I must not have ticked a box so all my previous narrative is lost. This system needs to be more robust for oldies!
    So here is a precis of what I said:
    1. Competition is the missing word. Individuals, companies and countries all compete and productivity is the differentiator. Engineers are crucial to improving productivity.
    2. Engineers will be driven to succeed and compete even if there isn’t a big bonus at the end of it. Success can take many forms but all thrive on it.
    3. More jobs will be created due to the higher standard of living brought about by the increased productivity in service, security, public support, medicine, charity etc..
    4. Public policy will always resolve the distribution of wealth issues in the long term. The Finnish example is a good one but the UK has shifted this way in recent years with the minimum wage, apprenticeship levy and major increases in business rates.

    A well balanced article I thought and some very interesting responses which is great.

    1. Your points stating that engineers will not have a say in halting progress is true and in that sense i guess the question becomes what is the best way to ensure that the transition for people losing jobs is as painless as possible. Subsidies to retrain and educate workers for new roles?

      Where is the guarantee that more jobs will be created in the long run is my question? That cornell study above stated that in 120 years AI will be able to carry out almost any task as well as a human. What jobs will be left to do?
      The guarantee that jobs are created only work if the new jobs being created are done by humans.

      If we truly are jobless, policy will become even more important and society will be drastically different.

      Thanks for your comment!

  9. Interesting insight into the possible implications of automation and the responsibility this may pose on legislators and the ethical dilemma for engineers. I agree with most of the article, but whether it is the engineers responsibility to take into consideration the societal impact of automation however, I am not entirely convinced. It is unlikely engineers would even have the capability to voice their considerations, corporate motivation will spearhead automation in an effort to increase scalability, higher profits and fewer man made errors.

    1. yes, the ability of an engineer to influence a corporate decision is limited. However, i believe that they still have a responsibility to consider the impact on society and try to reduce any potential harm when designing the product

  10. Thanks for this excellent article, giving the pros and cons of automation in a balanced and insightful way. While presenting the risks of AI to the job market and the lives of normal people, this article also put forward the ethical framework by which we will need to shape automation in the future. Automation seems to be inevitable, and it is important that we know how best to deal with it. This article presents an insightful view of a highly controversial issue and gives me hope that the engineers of the future will consider ethical implications while also progressing technology and improving our quality of life.

  11. Excellent article, and what an interesting topic! From my point of view as a third officer in the merchant navy, I believe that AI will eventually replaces ships crews. This however will depend on the type of work that a ship is doing e.g. passenger ships may still have to make passengers feel more at ease same as planes. Deep sea as well due to the fact with no persons on board fixing a problem becomes very hard, may lead to duplicates of all equipment. Initially shipping will become more remote controlled but the industry is at risk as crews will be replaced with one or two persons in charge of a number of ships around the world. It has already started happening a number of ports are now autonomous and have very few people working in them. I believe it will eventually come will be slow to be introduced as costs of crews compared to the systems and like I said probably duplicated systems in case something broke down mid voyage. Truthfully I’m not too sure when it will come. Lots of our equipment is already very automated, auto pilots which can follow tracks and alter course. Engine rooms are unmanned and will alarm when a problem is detected. dynamic positioning can keep ships on a specific position all of computers and some will even use this system when coming into port. The main issue I see now is general maintenance which at the present time is carried out by ships crews, how these systems could change main engine parts or navigate in areas of undetectable objects on the radar as some still aren’t detected which could result in lots of collisions. The other issue would be cyber security if a vessel full of liquid gas or crude oil was hijacked by someone sitting half way around the world on a computer.
    If it came to it ships would probably go to dry dock more often and have no need for any crew on at all, would also mean no weight from accommodation so more space to hold cargo

    1. you make a good point. there are many tasks that a computer will never be able to solve. at least not for now… the scariest thing about total automation for me is its susceptibility to hacking, like you say. when everything is controlled by machinery and we have complete faith in it to work – which we do already to some extent – how will we be able to respond? we must ensure that there is a safety net and we know how to respond when a machine cannot think for us

  12. A very good read. I think you’ve covered most of the ethical issues surrounding the topic in a very easy to understand way. I would like to add a comment specific to what I’ve seen as a junior doctor, and the use of A.I. in medicine.

    I think A.I could be beneficial given that the nhs is public sector funded. Technology in medicine tends to increase costs in healthcare because it either creates a new field/more work or upgrades a previous methods outcomes and (hopefully) efficiency. AI has the potential to reduce humongous labour costs. However, imagine going to the GP and chatting to doctor digital Dave. In my experience, patients would hate it. Currently, AI is limited in services where empathy are a necessity. I don’t the quirkiness of an AI waitress for example, applies when it is responsible for your life. If you could replace NHS 24hr service with AI, that would be fairly amazing; over the phone discussion that triaged you into low, medium and high risk would save labour costs and have some cool overseas applications, as most of the developing world now have phones when they don’t have access to a doctor. AI could potentially offer basic advice on a global scale and in remote areas where there is no healthcare / understanding.

    I get the impression AI has to cover the big, behind the scenes things. It is better suited to bed management roles for example. AI cant really affect labour costs drastically in frontline healthcare for a long time. AI excels at medicine where nursing can’t. We do go by guidelines often, but every patient is different with potential grey area. Besides the lack of empathy, imagine an AI that was managing your granny. Firstly how would you feel about that? Then imagine how the management would alter based on your grans wants and wishes, then on her age, her fitness, her co-morbidities. These are things we often do not quantifiably assess. You have already assimilated the patients story in whatever crazy illogical way they chose to give it so what a patient thinks is most important can be the crux of the issue or literally the least important.

    Will A.I. take docotrs and nurses jobs? By the time AI take nurses or doctors jobs they have essentially replaced humans.

    1. Thank you for your comment, you made some really interesting points.

      I think you’re right in saying AI at the moment is not suited to handle the nuances of patient interaction but in the coming years we may become more comfortable with AI in our everyday lives. I’m thinking in particular of automated cars, 15 years ago I would never have stepped foot in one if I was told a computer would be driving me. However, if you gave me the choice now between a friend driving on a road trip or the on-board computer I’d now pick the computer every time. As insurance companies see the advantages in less dangerous drivers so will hospitals and healthcare companies.

      I understand that healthcare is more complex and more human but I think once AI are good enough to be better than a human doctor or can do all the similar work, the societal mindset will change and the next generation which has known nothing else will be perfectly comfortable receiving care from an unfeeling machine.

      The point about AI replacing humans is not as far away as many might believe, the Cornell study posted in the article says it’s only 120 years away.

  13. Poor unemployed flippy! Thanks for a good read, I enjoy discussing this topic as it is very relevant to what tomorrows world will look like.
    I think you’ve covered most of the issues that are out there, they say there is going to be jobs that are created that don’t exist yet although I believe that will happen in the same way it did before, we just can’t understand how yet. And I think we are a long way from a world with no work.
    But if it does happen a basic salary sounds like a good idea. I’d like to know more about the trials that have been done around the world. I see the first jobs that are going to be lost to robots include construction and transportation. And the last, something like medicine that needs a human element of empathy.

    Who knows, this technology might be necessary if we as humans, want to colonise other planets.

    1. The basic salary sounds like a good idea, but when it comes down to it, it may not appeal to the majority of humans. It is effectively a communist idea: everyone gets the same money for doing the same thing (which in this case is nout!), and although no-one has the right to complain about receiving money for nothing, I am sure that some people would find a way!

      I think you are absolutely spot on with the fact that humans will need this technology for colonisation of other plants; which at the rate humans are populating the earth, will be in the not-so-distant future! Robots can do things that humans cannot. That is an important thing to remember when progressing with this issue. Their ability to be in situations that we cannot is very useful, whether it is working on nuclear sites, or as you rightly mentioned, being transported into space for exploration. The potential for automation to be beneficial is very high.

      Thank you for the comment!

  14. From my point of view, technological advancement is inevitable and I agree some jobs will be lost and others will be generated from the implementation of robots. However, it must be considered that many robots, at some point, malfunction and could cause harm to customers and end users.
    Currently many companies (particularly manufacturing) are trying to incorporate robots alongside humans, which in my opinion is the ideal scenario here. The education process for a human worker to work around robots, develops their skill base which is the key to not generating the skilled/non-skilled worker divide. Utilisation of the robots best features make jobs easier and more efficient for humans, which can only be a good thing.

    1. Humans are much better multi-taskers than machines. One human can solve numerous tasks compared to a robot which is programmed to perform a limited number: even if they can do this better than us. This has been seen recently in the tesla model3 production line where they’ve been forced to employ a human workforce – as mentioned by @Woody
      there will always, at least for the foreseeable future, be a place for humans to make big decisions that involve empathy or to solve problems when something unexpected goes wrong. which, as you say, can be fatal. as is the way with technology

  15. This was a very interesting article. I think the late Stephen Hawking summarised the trend towards automation accurately:

    “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed,”

    “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality”


  16. This is a complex topic that is sure to spark further debate in regard to all of the things mentioned above; especially concerning the loss of jobs, the further monopolising of wealth and resources.
    I would like to comment and extrapolate from a philosophical standpoint on a point touched on in the post of people lacking a purpose and the quality of an individuals life declining as automation becomes more prevalent. British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in his work ‘An Introduction to Mathematics’ was wary even at the time of publication in 1911 of the human attraction to automation. His argument is broadly that what is inherently human, and what we are drawn to in speeches and writings, is that we should be in a habit of thinking for ourselves and expanding the human mind to new possibilities. Whilst automation may seem like a sort of mind expansion, in reality it is the opposite, and it has come to a point where advances in civilisation can be measured by the number of actions we can perform without thinking about them.
    In short, whilst I may not wholehartedly support this viewpoint, I thought it more conducive to a decent discussion to try and cover some new ground. This argument ends by stating that all out automation can be dangerous, but it is needed to an extent to reduce the strain on the human mind that menial jobs can take, thus freeing us up for the expansion of thought that Whitehead believes is paramount to further advances.

  17. Very well written article, both sides of the argument presented in a balanced way whilst paying respects to the limitations of for and against. I personally believe the greatest fear of automation is change. You mentioned for every job automation makes redundant, a new one is created. A report by Deloitte predicts that automation will actually fuel the creation of many more human jobs than the one it directly removes. Surely with a growing population, it is more ethical to support automation and the generation of more jobs to help battle unemployment?

  18. I agree with the comment that automation in certain industries can have a dangerous effect on the job market. With unemployment and redundancy rates so high in certain sectors where job automation can be applied, I am concerned that this would only add to the problem. With regards to the ethics applicable here I am unsure of how the different theories apply from just reading the article.

  19. Very interesting read. I believe that the main issue involved stems from humans being uncomfortable with the thought of robots replacing their livelihoods and jobs. Robots are unfeeling tools which do not need a purpose to work, while we as humans do, and to see your job, the very thing which may give you purpose in life, being replaced by a robot, can be extremely worrying for most. The emotional aspect of this is very real, but this will not stop it from happening. As technology naturally progresses, automation will become more and more present in every day environments, and we are not faced with a question of “whether we should allow it or not” but instead, “how can we ensure job security for those affected”.

    1. A lot of the hysteria surrounding this is fear of the unknown. However, like you say, there is genuine concern that automation will replace people’s jobs. This comes back to the lump of labour fallacy; there are not a finite number of jobs. with the implementation of AI, doors will open up but it is up to society to ensure that people are not left behind.

      i think that people must learn to accept the sweeping changes that are coming but they must be more prepared than they are. At the moment there seems to be little advice and support in place on what to do if your job is threatened. I’d like to see better social policy to ensure education and advice is in place to ensure a more level playing field

  20. As a follower of new technologies, I personally agree with the development of automation. From a logical point of view, automation does not mean that people will lose their jobs because technical difficulties are unlikely to be able to engage in a large number of steps and a large number of variables in the short term. The automation process will be even more. Reducing industrial activities with high repetitiveness, when the degree of automation is high, human beings will be able to liberate more possibilities to explore and study more unknowns when meeting the basic conditions for human survival can be automated.

  21. This article makes me think of two films.

    Firth that came to mind was Charlie and the Chocolate factory, where Charlie Bucket’s dad loses his job at the toothpaste capping factory to a machine. This was a horrific event for an already poor family. I think care must always be taken by engineers to consider how much a new invention will affect the lives of all sorts of different people.

    However, the second film that came to mind was Hidden Figures, a recent film about the amazing women who worked at NASA and helped get the first American to space and back. In the film NASA is installing a super computer, that would make all the women computers redundant. However, one big gal with a smart head learns everything she can about the super computer and trains all her other gals and then they get jobs looking after it.

    So, although my argument has been built off of movies I’ve seen, I think its very unlikely that in any of our lifetimes machines will become smart enough that they no longer need humans to control and maintain them. Actually, I think even at the end of Charlie and the Chocolate factory Mr. Bucket gets a job looking after the machine that stole his. However, I do think care must be taken to make sure no one has their livelihoods taken from them by a machine.

    1. Rate this response. Long-winded but I get your point at the end. I think you’re right. At the end of the day, we will evolve to cope with the changes AI will bring to our lives and new opportunities will open up. Sadly, for many, their lives will be turned upside down and they often will not have the necessary skills to pick up a new job. Is it morally correct to allow this to happen? I think Mr. Bucket was quite lucky to get his back so soon. As for hidden figures, I’ll have to give it a watch before forming an ethical argument…

  22. Interesting read. you’ve mentioned a lot of stakeholders here. AI really will change the lives for almost everyone and as Mr. Capron said, there’s no use being a King Canute over this! People fret over the change this tide will bring but the truth is, AI will bring enormous benefits to mankind. More people will finally have time to pursue their hobbies and interests without having to spend 9 hours a day working to survive. it’ll open up ideas and jobs you and I can’t even perceive right now.

    We must, however, be careful that the public do in fact benefit from these advancements. Change will come about quicker than we’ll expect and legislators must foresee these issues and act much faster than they have done throughout the digital revolution so far…

    1. AI is going to affect the way we all live. However, I’m sceptical that we will all suddenly have this luxurious lifestyle free to philosophise and pursue our hobbies. Like jamesbelton said, we’re often promised great things from technology that never come into fruition. Instead, we’ll just adapt to work alongside it. Yes, it will benefit our lives. just not quite so drastically. At least, not for the majority

  23. Flippin’ell eh, interesting article that was very well written. In my personel opinion i feel that automation is here to stay and hence it is ethical to continue implementing the technology. However i feel automation has its place as do a human workforce. Take for example teslas new mega factory; the factory was pretty much all automated to construct the model 3 teslas, however the utomation in places was not as fast or precise as a human can be. Therefore the factory has hired a major new work force. In terms of economics the truth is harsh but its often cheaper to implement machinery and im sure many of us would if we were the owners of big production fascilities. DrPatrickJS raises some goodpoints about the state of the economic system However innovation always creates jobs in other sectors so with automation will come new jobs.

  24. An interesting and well thought out article, this is something that I, as an IT Professional, have also been thinking about.
    First of all, as an employee of IBM who works in the Watson & Cloud Platform team (thoughts are my own here, by the way), I should just comment on the couple of references you have made to IBM Watson. First, Watson is a set of AI APIs – one successful application of these API’s has been the creation of a system which is able to help doctors diagnose cancers but there are a whole host of other applications for the technology, such as providing help to Tax consultants in the USA, predicting and pin-pointing breakdowns in gas pipelines and putting intelligence into chat bots. In short, the technology is not limited to medical applications, as your article implies. Secondly, these systems must be seen as decision support applications – they are there to help professionals make decisions, not to make decisions on their own. In the example of oncology, the Watson-enabled system has been ‘fed’ millions of pages of medical research, diagnoses and case notes, which it is able to quickly digest and cross-reference, effectively ‘learning’ to be an oncology expert, which can carry on learning. The system uses this data to provide a reasoned diagnoses, displaying links to relevant material but at the end of the day, it is the human doctor that makes the diagnoses and not the machine itself. The machine provides analysis of the available data (and far more data than a human could reasonably comprehend), effectively providing a decision support tool. Doctors will always be needed, just as humans will always be needed to make the final decision in lots of other areas too, because there will always be factors, such as emotion, which come into decisions which machines cannot comprehend.
    I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about today’s technologies creating new job opportunities. I recall as a kid in the early 80’s being told that technology would mean that we’d all have more leisure time than we’d know what to do with, yet here we are, nearly 40 years later and we’re all still working 35+ hour weeks!
    What technology does is create new kind of jobs. IBM refers to this as ‘New Collar Workers’. What this implies is that jobs will be created to suit the latest technological landscape – cloud computing, data science and AI, not necessarily directly in these disciplines but in the companies that these disciplines enable. As these disciplines are superseded, so the jobs landscape changes and new companies emerge.
    Inevitably and sadly, some will loose out, just as thousands did when we moved from a manufacturing-based economy to one based largely on services. Society must enable people to develop the right skills for these new careers and provide an adequate safety-net for those that are caught out during change.
    Great article, there are lots of talking points….. and I could go on!

    1. Interesting to see how this technology is being used alongside humans and how it can be implemented into our existing roles. I agree that education is the way forward to ensure that everyone is able to work with this tech and not get left behind!

  25. Good arguments and it is clear from your notes and the discussion that, unlike the industrial revolution, jobs and people will be affected at all levels.
    Use of algorithms and general process automation is affecting many industry areas from finance to law and pharmacy dispensing but perhaps we just need to have more and more data crunching going on to allow us to have what we need which is cheaper and better goods and services – after all there may be less income to buy them so to avoid exclusion it should be encouraged.
    How will we all stay engaged? We will need to encourage creativity in all areas from engineering and science through to the education and care industries to make best use of what is available.
    If automation is implemented so rapidly that society cannot keep up with the pace of change and value is mainly added through automation rather than individual labour, will there be enough general spending power and if not, where will it come from?
    I suggest it is worth also reading Martin Ford’s “The Rise of The Robots” and his suggestion of Universal Income (state income distributed to everyone) and separately have a look at how Norway recently tried to implement such a Universal Income scheme but had to abandon it earlier this year – not as easy as it may appear.
    I remain optimistic that the human spirit is strong and we will work out how to fill space and time in positive ways. After all, not long ago it would have been ridiculous to think that a whole generation would be captivated (often disabled) by Facebook, Netflix, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Youtubers earning millions, and that there was anything more important than making sure you had a charged smartphone that costs as much as a small previously loved car to own and run!! This said, the willingness of people to provide knowledge through YouTube has helped mend many broken item in my house – didn’t have that before. Oh, then there is the re-use of items through ebay and local buy swap sell – that’s effective. Must be happening already – you have a point that we are in this here and now!
    Here’s “To The Future” and hopefully something more creative and useful than staring at small screens!! Thank you for making me think and providing the opportunity to rattle on a bit.

  26. So should we worry about this? Will nature take its course?

    Well of course ‘we should worry’ about it… constructively. Engineers saying that they might auto censor progress in some way is worrying, it will ‘take its course’ ie. be put to use for gain somewhere anyway.

    Strange for a debate launched on the site of a top uni that there is little mention of what for me is the constructive way forward in all this – education. From a useful #IOEDebates about preparation for AI (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news-events/events-pub/apr-2018/what-if-prepare-young-people-artificial-intelligence-age), I understood the following would be required: empathy and creativity, because machines can’t do it, and coding and meta-knowledge in order to use and inform AI. A couple of these have been mentioned above:
    • Empathy is already becoming a valuable differentiator in business. I used to choose businesses that had great automation (online banking etc), but now we have all that, I look desperately in any service provider to check they have a real help service line as well as the chatbot. People who understand the need for both will have a positive differentiation, so there will be value in educating for empathy (if it is possible), or at least educate in integrating your automatic and empathetic service as someone said above re NHS.
    • In creativity again, the interface is key: Disney remakes (again) the traditional fairy stories with human movement animating the cartoon characters to great acclaim.

    Creators of AI will of course run more and more of the world, so an education starting with coding is essential not just for those who want to be in the chain of future value, but to all. Society is better off when we know how cars work (and pollute more or less), how food is made (and nourishes or not) and now, how machines make our decisions.

    Meta-knowledge is probably the most significant discipline in AI and how it is used. Those who are able to find, assemble and work with relevant bodies of information will be the curators of AI. AI will remain dependent on those who nourish it, the person with the power switch of course, and those who decide what data to feed it (and what not). If I were starting anew, I would start here.

    So for me engineers have a massive responsibility to engage in educational exchange. (Bravo for this blog!) They should make sure that they are educated in empathy and creativity (or work with those who are) and that they help the rest of us with coding and meta-knowledge so that we know how decisions are made.

    As to our fractured society, and the growing gaps between those who control the value chains and the rest, there is only one solution: education. We all need to be involved, using a range of relevant skills from empathy through to coding. There is something for everyone as long as we give everyone a chance. That is where society and legislation comes in: we should spend more money of our taxes on training and re-training.

    PS On the empathy point, I lost this comment a couple of times as the person above due to a mis-tick! I nearly gave up.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I agree that the idea of engineers halting progress is worrying and brings up another interesting ethical question, “Is it unethical to slow the technological progress of humanity”

      Education is indeed key in both opening opportunities in new technologies for all as well as ensuring that we do not get caught by surprise by the lightning advancement of AI (something I fear we will not be able to adapt to). In a link above by AdamP some of the smartest tech minds, all tout warnings of extreme caution when it comes to the future of AI, if Elon Musk, Mark Cuban and Bill Gates all see AI as the next big hurdle for humanity to overcome it must be a considerable threat. However, with the correct education and infrastructure also the greatest tool humanity has ever had access to.

      About empathy: I think the belief that AI won’t soon be able to convincingly reproduce is a little naïve, the lines are starting to blur between the digital and biological brain. Or at least the digital brain is starting to exhibit similar behaviours from a completely different starting point. In 100 years the imitation may be so good we may not be able to discriminate between the two and we find ourselves living a bladerunner film, wondering if there’s a need to differentiate the two. In the interim, I agree that human empathy will differentiate companies.

      The question of who nurtures these networks is a great point I hadn’t considered, this lends itself well to exploitation it seems with very powerful tools being crafted for specific and perhaps not always benign purposes.
      I’m inclined to agree with your conclusion that engineers have an ethical obligation to educate and share their knowledge but even know I fear that often these tools are somewhat too complex for even the creator to understand and companies are unlikely to allow the inner workings of their competitive edge to be explained to the masses. There will surely be a degree of censorship.

      Great discussion and thanks again for your comment.

  27. I really enjoyed reading both sides of this debate. It seems, however, pretty clear to me that the development of technology by engineers is an overwhelmingly positive process for the labour force. There are a number of ways to show that it is not just jobs that are created, but importantly quality jobs which are conducive to a better quality of life for the workforce. It cannot be the remit of the creative engineer to design such technology only if there will be no initial job loss – that role is surely left to those who will purchase and implement the changes. It’s a contentious topic in any case and this blog captures both sides in an impressively concise manner.

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