Bioethics, Robots, and The Future of Work

Bioethics work at desks

Self-driving cars, warehouse robots, EZ-pass, do-it-yourself check-outs, and ATMs threaten the future of work. Work and its many components including pay, atmosphere, feeling of inclusion, and empowerment are social determinants of health. Potential job loss is a valid consideration in ethical arguments to restrict the development or uses of new technologies, yet there is not a foundational approach to the issues. Because regulations are slow to catch up with technology, corporate actors with conflicts of interest are the arbiters, weighing the pros and cons of their own technological inventions. Some have proposed an IRB-like solution to monitor and approve new tech, but that solution seems unlikely and distant. Regulations are responsive (and usually late) when they could be formulated in advance of anticipated job loss.

Photo by David Levêque on Unsplash

Many people see progress as an intrinsic good, even if it leads to “technological unemployment”. To others, traditions like a 9 to 5 job are a good, and life is centered around the workplace, making adjustments or job loss not just financially challenging but socially demoralizing as well. Historically, the industrial revolution and paradigm shifts sparked by singular inventions threatened jobs. According to estimates, there could be a 50 percent net decrease in employment due to robotics within 20 years. Progress and work each have intrinsic and instrumental value. Luckily, there is no simple bioethics formula to characterize and weigh harms. The interdisciplinary nature of bioethics, defined as moral philosophy of health-related sciences like medicine, health, biologics, pharmaceuticals, and broader STEM fields, calls for the tech, public health, policy and legal, economics, and psychology fields to collaborate with philosophers. Philosophy must drive the framework and ensure a fair approach and a valid analysis, incorporating logical reasoning and critical theory. A simple weighing of harms won’t do.

The Ethical Difference in Comparative Cases: The Moral Goodness of the Job Lost

Case A: Loss of a Polluting Job and Growth of an Environmentally Friendly Industry

In industries like coal mining that pollute or bear some intrinsic bad, I would consider job loss an ancillary bad when greener innovations threaten the industry. Or consider loss of a safer job in a polluting industry like fossil fuels where the person was not taking health risks on the job. Many people may not weigh the harm of that type of job loss as heavily, or could argue it is a good, that cleaner energy has some acceptable roadkill. The more robotics, the fewer “green” jobs. The environmentally favorable unemployment arguably is for the greater good in the long term, but whether its harms can be mitigated by corporate, community, and government actions is unclear.

Climate change mitigation and maintaining employment are sometimes competing goals. Those losing jobs that pollute are not often the same people who then gain a green job. When bioethics looks for weighing processes, underlying values influence analysis. One may argue that all job loss is bad, while another may argue that all jobs that pollute are bad. Simplistic harm reduction would support the person whose job is lost. Utilitarianism tends to assume the ability to weigh goods but does not provide guidance on how to weigh even a small loss of something incredibly meaningful subjectively to the person losing it. The loss of a terrible job in a terrible industry may create a downward spiral in a human life.

Bioethics principles fail here—beneficence to society favors green jobs; beneficence to the person employed in the polluting job turns into harm reduction (or holds society back in its efforts to decrease pollution.)

Case B: Pollution Ancillary to Commutes

Human costs are compared to the benefits or the good generated by automation, robotics, and new technologies. The utilitarian who believes all jobs that pollute are bad may justify job losses too easily. Under that practice, if all automation and robotics cut out some long commutes that pollute, the environmental effect may outweigh its effects on those fired, even if the industry being automated was not a contributor to pollution, and, even if the automation does not serve any good other than to the corporation using it. (Commuting to be a bank teller uses gas. ATM saves that teller’s gas.) Dismissing the harms of the job loss in an industry that pollutes could lead to a slippery slope in which all new tech can justify job loss, regardless of its purpose or use. The earth might be better if everyone stayed home.  

In the ATM situation, the ATM is not really “doing good.” Nor is a warehouse robot. But in the new green job (for example wind energy with few employees replacing a coal mine), the industry is doing good. The benefits of new technologies open many issues: Who benefits from them? Does a single entity or all of society share in the benefits?

Case C: The Robot Makes an Industry Safer

Robotics in solar energy will decrease the need for workers, especially those in dangerous jobs. A robot doing good (both by saving a person from a dangerous job and by creating renewable energy) a person who was doing good, but doing so was dangerous, lost a job “Robotic assistance has already begun to replace a number of high-risk jobs, such as assembly line and manufacturing jobs, and medical lab technicians.”

In cases of robots bearing the danger, the issue of the industry remains. If a robotic device does the job that pollutes instead of a person, the person’s safety is a significant benefit: no exposure to coal dust, but also no paycheck. Devoting resources to create robotics which further “dirty” industries like coal may be permissible under a “harm reduction” bioethics approach; a robot would not be susceptible to lung damage. But devoting tech to dirty nonrenewable energy when innovation should go toward sustainable energy sources is undesirable. Government rewards for engaging in the “right” tech help and regulations to discourage the wrong tech help. The market itself is not the perfect driver of ethical tech decisions. Markets thrive on access to the cheapest even as consumer preferences change toward greener products.

Job Loss, Work, and Purpose

The “crisis in meaning” for the terminated employee is problematic regardless of what job was lost to technology. The push and pull between corporate and government responsibility for lost jobs covers something technical rather than emotional. As such, the government compensating through welfare programs like a universal basic income or food and housing assistance would not satisfy any emotional deficit from unemployment. Regulations could require corporate taxation or payments directly to former employees to keep the burden on the corporation, also failing to address the less tangible value of work like emotions, purpose, and community.

Work is integral to wellness for many people. In the US, a strong work ethic is valued, but if there is not enough paid work to be done by people, the norms or value structure would need to change. A societal effort to realign unemployment with acceptable adjectives, not laziness or failure is unlikely. Yet a musical chairs approach would further the negative stereotypes while a concerted effort to address the future of work could alter or modernize the moral value we place on work.

To me, the importance of work is so embedded culturally that encouraging innovation that involves more people, job sharing, and better wages would be a better approach. Underemployment would be less problematic if people had enough money and participated in other meaningful activities. Shannon Vallor asserts that adaptation, or flexibility is a virtue necessary to deliberate a “prudent course of technosocial action” (p. 148). Her delineation of flexibility as a virtue is important, but, to me, many people are personally less flexible, dislike change, and will not embrace such a virtue. I would argue that society is not ready to devalue work or to improve a conditioned perspective on people “of leisure”. Even in the right geopolitical landscape with the right entities sharing the responsibilities, and even with safety nets, Americans equate work and purpose. It seems unrealistic to redefine what makes life purposeful.

An analysis of the future of work should start with purpose—what it is to lead a purposeful life—and should include ways to develop new industries with high paying jobs of the future. Robotics should not replace main street social interactions. What kind of society do we want to live in? And, with how much personal interaction? Who should approve which technologies for which use? Should some tech be reined in, and other tech encouraged? The larger impact on society implies many stakeholders, most of whom so far have had no voice in tech ethics.

Featured Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

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