Ethics of Automation

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Today’s post is inspired by some of the comments I have received on a previous post from a couple of years ago on the advantages and disadvantages of automation. In that post (and in my book), I listed some of the “good” and “bad” things associated with automation, particularly in industry and manufacturing.

What is interesting about the comments is that most of them focused on the ethical or societal aspects of the question, rather than benefits and liabilities. I am an engineer, own a business and work in the automation field, so naturally my opinions are a bit biased. I approached the question in my book more from a technical standpoint, today I am going to try and look at it from a socioeconomic view.

Imagine… somewhere is a village with a population of a thousand or so working adults, along with families, children, people who are too old or too handicapped to work. The village is far away from any other villages, so they need to produce most of what they use and eat; trade is very sparse and goods are difficult to obtain from “outside”. Resources are plentiful, the village is reasonably prosperous and every one is well-fed and very busy.

Joe owns a machine shop. He spends a lot of his time making odds and ends for different craftsmen and households in the village. Along with Bob, who repairs appliances and farm equipment and Steve, who takes care of electrical issues around the village, they make up most of the technical capabilities in town.

Bob’s wife Mary is a weaver and makes cloth and fabrics from wool and cotton grown in the area. Because she is the only one that does this is town, her services are highly sought after and fabrics are quite expensive. She asks Bob if he and his friends can make something that would allow her to make fabrics faster. A couple of months go by and Bob brings home a mechanism that takes the raw materials in at one end and spits cloth out the other.

Mary is a bit taken aback; this is not exactly what she was thinking of, but it certainly makes cloth a lot faster and with a more consistent weave than she can. After 6 months she finds that she spends most of the day feeding raw materials in one end of the machine and folding the material that comes out the other end. She gets some help from some of the other wives on her street, and production increases tenfold.

A year later there is a lot more cloth available for some of the other local people who use it to make clothing and furnishings, and Mary discovers that she can’t charge what she used to for her fabrics. She also finds that she no longer makes cloth as an artisan, but instead operates the machine and takes care of the business. She complains to Bob that this is not really what she wanted, and is not making any more money than she used to because she is paying for people, more space, machine repairs and whatnot.

Joe is quite the genius, and over time develops machines that harvest the fields, package and can products, and even build other machines. He and his friends enjoy doing this for the work’s sake, and are constantly coming up with new gadgets and widgets for the village. They also start making more money, but people start taking a lot of this for granted over time and the cost of gadgets, widgets and machinery starts coming down.

Fast forward twenty years and the village is still prosperous, but the mayor’s brother owns several of the local businesses and people like Joe and Mary now work for him. He has told Mary that in order to make the business even more prosperous, she will have to lay off Sarah and Michelle; besides, there are now additional machines that fold and package the fabrics and even keep track of sales.

Agriculture and other food production such as meat, egg and milk production has also been automated, so whereas 50% of the village used to be involved in food production, now it’s 20%. Sarah, Michelle and many of the people displaced in food production now work in local restaurants (there are many more of those now), teach school (many of the children used to leave the education system at about 8th grade), and repair machinery (there is a lot more of that now!)

Many of the artisans have found that rather than doing things by hand, they are now operating machines. Sometimes they learn to repair their own equipment and enjoy the business aspect, but over time they discover that it is easier to just go work for the mayor’s brother, who now owns much of the production in town.

This is a very simplistic view of technology and economics, but in the past hundred years we have gone from a highly agricultural economy, to a manufacturing and industrial economy, to a largely service economy. Food production is largely automated and far fewer people work in farming. Many of the manufacturing jobs are moving to places where the cost of machine operators and manual labor is lower, and a lot more people are working in service industries and retail.

At the same time, everyone has a cell phone and access to any information they need at their fingertips, people live long past “retirement age” and even people who don’t work are usually not starving. I am reminded of the quote from a would-be African immigrant who said “I want to move to the United States, I’ve heard that even the poor people are fat there!”

It is easy to get lost in our own first world concerns. Many people are more interested in the personalities of the people who want to run the country or appear in the media than they are in finding ways to better their lives. We have the extra time now to do whatever we want, and we often waste it in unproductive or detrimental activities. Technology has changed exponentially, and you really can’t put the Genie back in the bottle.

So in answer to some of the comments on my previous post: Cheryl, you are absolutely correct; many processes can’t be economically automated, so there are a lot of tasks that are still performed by human operators. At the same time, I have been in a few plants where there is literally no one on the plant floor unless a machine needs maintenance. When you say that “that doesn’t mean that all processes should be automated” that doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone out there trying to do exactly that. If a process CAN be automated, that means it probably WILL be automated. Whether that is good or bad remains to be seen.

Arjun, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) has brought the idea, if not the fact of automation into the home already. In my own home I have cameras where I can view parts of the inside and outside of the house remotely, detectors for broken glass, door entry and smoke detectors (all monitored remotely), an automatic fish feeder and water top-off for my aquarium (which I can monitor through one of the cameras) and am in the process of doing even more. X-10 technology has been around for over 30 years, where you can turn anything on and off in your home remotely or automatically using your existing power wiring. Your refrigerator can tell you what food is inside of it, your washing machine and dishwasher can be started remotely or automatically, as can your car. This is only going to become easier and cheaper as time goes on. I plan to do a post on this in the future, both on Home Automation as well as IoT.

Alowo, I don’t have a clue…

Bokamoso, you are absolutely correct. Especially for those at the bottom of the economic spectrum or those in underdeveloped areas of the world. In first world countries this can possibly be changed by legislation, but there are a lot of places in the world where people have no way to affect the world around them or their government and socioeconomic situation. This is why so many people are trying to get to places with more opportunities.

Joshua, great question! You are part of the reason for this post today. Young people have grown up with this technology all around them. So much so that they tend to take it for granted sometimes… Every person under 30 that I know right now is a blazingly fast typist and can text like crazy. They all have cell phones, are usually pretty computer literate and are connected to nearly any knowledge resource you can think of… for free! At the same time, some people finish a four year college degree and end up working for minimum wage.

I tend to lean towards a free market economy. A service is worth what people will pay for it; if people get paid $15 an hour to assemble a hamburger, the cost of the hamburger will go up. You are already seeing self ordering kiosks in fast food places, and you can pay your bill in many restaurants without a waitress. I am one of the people who worked in those restaurants, from 1976-1980 I mostly worked for minimum wage. I didn’t start college until I was 29 after spending 8 years in the military to get my act together; fortunately I picked a good career path and ended up as an electrical engineer working in a field I love.

Right or wrong, automation will continue to increase. In most developed countries people have a choice in the direction of their lives, I can’t think of a better direction than that of developing technical skills. Even if you are going to be a nurse, a teacher or shopkeeper, knowing how things work is extremely important. Basic computer skills and functional literacy are requirements in almost any field unless you are an athlete, entertainer, laborer or politician :-D.

I purposely haven’t come down on the side of right or wrong in this article; as I said, I work in automation and have benefited a lot from it, so I am pretty biased. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject though!


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

3 Comments on “Ethics of Automation

  1. That was a great parable, Frank, but you didn’t finish the story. You see, Joe, Bob, and Steve sold their machine-build enterprise to the Repair Technicians’ Association and started a software company to develop PLM, MES, and ERP solutions for Mary and other manufacturers. They hired all the kids in the village to run their social media marketing campaign. As a result, revenue poured into the village from manufacturers around the world. And everybody lived happily ever after. Moral of the story: It’s up to each of us to reinvent ourselves.

    • Thanks Enrique! You are right, I didn’t finish the story. Some of the other villages also started making some of the same widgets and gadgets cheaper, and the mayor’s brother moved some of the widget plants out of town so he could also take advantage of lower labor costs. Some of the guys who used to make widgets could never quite get the hang of the newfangled computers and had to move into a van down by the river. There were about 50 people in the village that claimed that they couldn’t find a job, 30 of those really didn’t want to work anyway, but with all the new revenue the village helped support them. Another 100 really DID want a job, they just really didn’t want to actually work there. So some of the guys from the neighboring village moved in and did the work for them, they appreciated the higher pay and worked very hard. They reinvented themselves. Hmmm, maybe this could be a soap opera or something… 😀

  2. We live in a technologic world and there is no return. But we realy do not know where it will lead us.Every problem we solve create a new one and everything becomes more complex. Now we need a very big struture running to survive.