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ETHICS OF AI - Automation & Employment

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is on the rise with the application of innovative technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics, internet-of-things, data science, etc. These innovations are pushing forward the integration of advanced technologies into our daily lives such as autonomous vehicles, virtual assistants, 3D printing, and social robots.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics are increasing productivity, and overall wealth, through the automation of many activities previously done by humans, or previously inaccessible by humans. Increasing productivity has always been the goal of the economy, and automation is nothing new. Automation, and fears of how that would impact individual livelihoods, already came about during earlier industrial revolutions.

History shows us that previous industrial revolutions have forced changes in employment structures, but after recovering from the initial shift, automation has created prosperity instead of poverty and many researchers and philosophers theorize the same will be true this time around.

D.H. Autor, in their paper, “Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation,” states:

“Automation does indeed substitute for labor—as it is typically intended to do. However, automation also complements labor, raises output in ways that lead to higher demand for labor, and interacts with adjustments in labor supply. [. . . ] [J]ournalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities between automation and labor that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor”.

Yes, machines will be able to replace humans in certain tasks, complement humans’ work in others, and in some cases perform tasks that humans are incapable of. This will inevitably create a decline in certain occupations while simultaneously creating growth and change in others, and more than likely, creating new occupations that don’t currently exist in reality or in theory.

Research done by McKinsey & Company concludes that, “Nearly all occupations will be affected by automation, but only about 5 percent of occupations could be fully automated by currently demonstrated technologies.”

Many theorizers have signaled a very real potential of technological automation exacerbating the shrinking middle class and growing income inequality. Already we can see that highly skilled technical jobs are in demand and highly paid while low skilled service jobs are in demand and low paid — yet the mid-qualification jobs, which employ the majority of the population, are the most susceptible to automation because they are relatively predictable (think factory and office jobs).

The already unjust distribution of wealth is not to be taken lightly as we move towards the inevitable automation of our modern world, though this discussion merits its own article and consideration, so we will leave it at this for now.

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