The drivers and social responsibility of automation

There’s a tendency to take a negative view where automation is involved. But there are plenty of examples of how automation can reshape our lives in positive ways

5 api automated robot keyboard
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With machines come automation. And with automation comes a huge shift in how we live. What will the future of work look like? What does automation mean for humanity’s collective and individual purpose? What role will automation play in the social and economic displacement of people?

There’s a tendency to take a negative viewpoint where automation is involved. But the reason so many of us are pursuing this path forward is that it promises the potential to change society for the better.

Here are just a few examples of how automation can positively reshape our lives.

The reduction of labor

Working longer hours doesn’t translate into comparable output. In fact, the longer our hours become, the more inefficient we get. Long hours are correlated with ill health and lower performance, costing US companies an estimated $300 billion each year. Automation provides opportunities to reduce these working hours, rebalancing our work and personal lives—and returning cost benefits via increase in efficiency.

But what if the needle tilts too far the other way, and we automate jobs out of existence? This is a common refrain, but it’s one we don’t need to fret about just yet. Despite the rapid roll-out of automated technology across many industries, unemployment remains at historically low levels. This is in part because automation is being used to augment, not replace, our abilities.

Take, for example, the Associated Press, which now uses software to report on Minor League Baseball results from around the country. In this instance, software is giving the AP the ability to expand its reporting capabilities beyond what they were able to do before. Rather than replacing workers, automation is creating a new value proposition for the news organization. It’s delegating away the least rewarding parts of our jobs—and giving us more of the higher-level work we enjoy.

Access to resources

Automation combines productivity with efficiency—doing what’s needed, and doing it well. As a result, it drives down the cost basis of the resources we consume, Automation makes it possible to massively scale intellectual, physical, and distributive labor, giving us the tangible or intangible goods we want at drastically reduced prices and with greater convenience.

While a common argument against automation is a potential decrease in human labor needs, the flipside is that automation requires people to exchange less of the proceeds received for their labor for the product that they’re buying. This means greater access to resources—and improved living standards across the board. There’s also the environmental impact: thanks to automation, Google’s DeepMind team claimed a 40 percent efficiency gain in cooling their datacenter. Given that datacenters currently account for about 2 percent of US energy usage, this is significant.

New ways forward

Automation isn’t just about freeing up people and resources in the now. It opens up new pathways for our future selves. With automation it’s possible to identify trends and redirect human ingenuity and effort into entirely new arenas, creating new industries, new visions and new ways of thinking.  

Automation, with its scientific underpinnings, is driven in part by the sheer possibility of what lies ahead—by human curiosity. Often it’s used to solve an existing problem or answer a long-abiding question. But it’s also an opportunity for us to explore new ideas that were until now out of reach—gene mapping, for example—and to develop new questions and hypotheses accordingly.

Extremely large, labor-intensive cooperative mega-projects are now also within the realm of possibility. Previously too difficult to manage and too costly to undertake using human workers, they’re something we can consider and plan for as automated technologies develop. As AI becomes better at managing dispersed efforts in a constructive manner, and automation releases humans from having to work such long hours, we may see an entirely new class of large-scale, world-changing projects begin to emerge.

So where to for automation?

As humans we face problems of labor, of efficiency and of future unknowns. Automation is driven by a desire to address and mitigate these issues and others. That said, like any tool, it can be channeled beneficently or harmfully, regardless of the impetus behind it. Similarly, a technology with such wide-ranging impact as automation is going to have significant flow-on effects, both anticipated and unanticipated.

Those of us working in automating industries have a duty to think carefully and advocate for our efforts to move in socially positive directions. For example, as automation grows, we need to acknowledge that lower-income workers will be disproportionately penalized by the change. We owe those workers a vision of the path they could follow instead. This could involve shaping training, education and employment outcomes, ensuring a net positive impact. In fact, much AI research already revolves around how to better train and teach people, and how to provide one-on-one tutoring without the attendant need for huge numbers of teachers. We also need to consider whether we’re designing tools that complement human abilities or replace them. Technologies that extend human potential can also extend our workforce longevity, while those that simply replace us will have a heavy impact on our lives and our identities.

Automation is built on a desire for better outcomes for all, but those outcomes don’t necessarily occur automatically. We need to work together to ensure that the benefits of automation are broadly shared—and that we’re prepared for the next wave of automation.

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