When I was studying in college, one of the classes that I saved for my senior year was called Computers in Society. When I first read this course on my academic requirements sheet, I thought it would be a joke. In my mind, I believed it was a filler class that talked about the history of computers. I saved it for last because I assumed it was easy and irrelevant. I was half right, the class was very easy, but it was probably one of the most important classes I ever took. The name of the class itself was misleading; it really should have been called Ethics and Computers.

If you don’t see the bridge between ethics and computers, than look no further then your new home assistant, such as a Google Home or Amazon Alexa, and look no further then your phone assistant as well. These two devices all cross a boundary that hasn’t existed in the last decade. These AIs essentially listen to everything you say and do within your home. If you asked any company that you use an AI assistant from to send all the information they have on you, you could probably make an encyclopedia out of it. These assistants essentially are helping you with a trade-off: that you willingly let them know everything about you and sell that data to third parties. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable allowing an employee from Amazon to sit in your home 24/7 listening to you, telling you what the weather is this week, and answering fun facts all while writing down your responses and recording your personal conversations. You would probably opt out. So the question is: why is it important to design technology and automation with ethics in mind?

Yourself in 800 Pages.

This ethical issue doesn’t pertain to just AI assistants, it also revolves around every single application you use today. Let’s take an example from Judith Duportail, who wrote an article for The Guardian about requesting her collected data from Tinder. Unlike the US, in the EU you are allowed to request private data collected about you from a third party. This journalist did just that from the dating app Tinder and received 800 pages about her personal love life. This data even influenced her Facebook and Instagram feed and Tinder was able to use the information she gave the app to tailor unique advertisements within other applications she used.1Some 800 pages came back containing information such as my Facebook “likes”, links to where my Instagram photos would have been had I not previously deleted the associated account, my education, the age-rank of men I was interested in, how many Facebook friends I had, when and where every online conversation with every single one of my matches happened … the list goes on.

As you can see, any piece of technology that has some form of an automated process in it holds ethical values. Some of those values are weaker than others. In Tinder’s case they use this data to customize your experience so that each user feels unique. However, with data collection being easier than ever due to automation, you also can’t be surprised when this data is sold on the market.2What Happens When We Are Not Ethical?

There are major consequences to ignoring ethics when it comes to technology, including automation. With the example on Tinder, privacy doesn’t exist for you when a company knows more about your habits than you do. With automation, it’s a little bit different. Automation is capitalism’s best friend. It is a major priority to gain profit per quarter and any loss in profit would result in investors losing confidence. Automation is a god send in this case because it makes labor cheaper. Look at the manufacturing industry, what used to be filled with rows of employees doing redundant tasks is now turned into machines being used by a handful of skilled workers. Then think about the money saved by making that investment. In America, employees are expensive; they have families, houses to live in, they need to eat, they want vacation, they want health insurance for when they get sick, and they want more money as time goes on. Machines and algorithms don’t get sick or hungry, they don’t complain when they worked overtime all week, and they especially don’t ask for a raise when there is a baby on the way.

Imagine being a CEO in this case. Your investors want to see a 4% increase in returns this year and you have to decide whether a project to automate 4,000 employees is worth it or not. There’s a very good chance you are going to approve it because the company always comes before the employee, that’s just the way capitalism is designed. If you say no, maybe you can find other ways, but automation easily pays for itself. Maybe it will cost you $2 million in initial investment, but as the years go by, you would only be paying for cost of maintenance. Maybe 4,000 employees won’t disappear in the first year, maybe 5 years later you only have 400 employees working on maintenance and installations for factory robots, but removing 90% of your workforce in 5 years is scary, and we need to start asking if we are doing enough to prepare.

What Can We Do?

Capitalism doesn’t try to follow ethical guidelines unless they are put in place by law. In the US, if you want to make money, you do everything you can get away with to make that money. If that means finding loopholes in the tax code,3 or offshoring jobs for cheaper labor, or even dumping your workforce in favor of automation then you do it without hesitation, because if you don’t then someone else will.

As a Computer Scientist, I believe it’s important to educate the community about the pitfalls of automation and its benefits. I think that by teaching people to prepare for what is coming and to teach people how to say this is ethical or not will be better than forcing them into a career path they won’t enjoy. I’m not saying that capitalism is evil, but it’s important to know that big companies aren’t going to save us in an age where skill relies heavily on how technical you are or how well you can automate something.

This may seem like a gloomy response, but there is not much we can do when it comes to automation. The best thing we can do is to talk about how do we change our society that will live in more automation; maybe capitalism alone won’t work. Maybe we need a hybrid system of both capitalism and socialism or maybe we need to reinvent the way our economy works. If we educate governing bodies about the social and economic issues that come with automation, a shrinking workforce and raising the bar for employment, then we can better prepare for when that day finally comes in full swing.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Richard,

    There seems to be a typo in your sentence “There’s a very good chance you are guying to approve it because the company always comes before the employee, that’s just the way capitalism is designed”: you probably meant to type “going” rather than “guying”.

    As far as I can remember, when I studied computer systems engineering many years ago, most matters regarding user interfaces, ethics and societies came from certain subjects available in the computer science department, not the engineering department. Even then, the issues discussed were not anywhere near as acute or pressing at the time as it is now, let alone the emergence of new issues as new technologies and automations took hold.

    In addition, the many problems and impacts of science in general and computer in particular could have been considerably reduced and better moderated or monitored, if not eliminated, when more scientists (computer scientists or otherwise) are much better informed by the philosophy of science, the history of science, and the sociology of science.

    Moreover, I suspect that any similar class, course or subject offered today will probably not be called “Computers in Society”, given that many portable devices, including the iPhone, have more computing power and functionality than a typical PC or Mac in the past, and that computers are found and used in so many other forms, including prostheses, smart devices and smart cars as well as sophisticated expert systems with deep learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for pointing out the typo! I also agree, “Computers in Society” is an outdated name. Even when I was in school, smart phones, portable devices, and the concept of IoT were all pretty common.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s