Pragmatic 4: The Morality Issue

15 December, 2013


John and Ben discuss the moral implications of an increasingly automated world. As we’re living in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution, what can we learn from the past that will prepare us for the future?

Transcript available
[MUSIC] This is Pragmatic, a weekly discussion show contemplating the practical application of technology. Exploring the real world trade-offs, we take a look at how great ideas are transformed into products and services that can change our lives. Nothing is as simple as it seems. I'm Ben Alexander and my co-host is John Chidjy. Good morning, John. Good morning, Ben. How are you doing? Good evening, John. Yes. It sounds weird, I know, but anyhow. Okay. I just want to open the show with, again, some thanks for all of the reviews we've been getting and ratings. Thank you so much to everyone who has submitted one. There's actually quite a few now, so I appreciate that. Also, I want to thank Michael Solis for the kind words as well about the show. And another special thank you to Mike Oertli who's written a nice follow-up piece about automation, which we will address in the follow-up shortly. And there's a link to his follow-up in the show notes if you want to go and check it out. So getting stuck right in. So it came up in conversation in the last episode, So we talked about, "Oh, I don't want to get into that this episode. I will save that rain check for another day." And that rain check was about, I guess I've been struggling with the right way of putting it. It's sort of the morality of technology or the morality of automation in particular or mechanization. And I guess I'm not sure I'm going to reach any conclusions, but I just want to talk about and explore it a little bit and we'll see where it leads us. So it all began. I love stories that start like that. it all began way back in the first industrial revolution, which the exact time of that is sort of a bit vague. So, somewhere between 1760 and 1820, which is a rather big gap, running through to about 1840 or so, and that was really driven by the invention of a reciprocating steam engine and the English in particular pushed mechanising a lot of manual chores. So, things like looms, things like looms, mills, different factories and stuff where people were manually making things, they pushed mechanization quite a bit and that started to spread around the world as people realized there was a cost saving. They generally recognized there was a second industrial revolution from 1840 to 1870 that was driven by the refinement of the steam engine to to a point at which it was incorporated into steam trains and steam ships. And that essentially ended our reliance on horses and on sailing ships, which could only go whenever there was wind. And that of course shrunk the world. So communication was faster and people could move product around. So that means you could centralise and you could then say, well, I'm going to spend more money on mechanising a factory in this location because now I have steam trains that I can move my product around to all these different places. That's something I didn't have before. Previously, you'd have to have labour in each location to make it locally because it was too difficult and expensive to ship it to other locations. So those industrial revolutions or the industrial revolution that I consider it as a whole, that sort of drove a movement that sort of came to be known as the Luddites. And I remember that when I first heard the expression, I had no idea what the hell it meant. I thought it was some kind of rock. But anyway, that was my ignorance at the time, I guess. But anyway, and having dug into this a little bit, it's unclear exactly for sure where the name Luddite came from, but it was often attributed to a guy called Ned Lud who smashed some stocking frames in 1779 and the movement peaked between, well during the 1810s, so during the first industrial revolution really and what they would do is they would literally, the Luddites movement would go around England destroying all of the machinery, they'd literally just come in there and just smash the pieces, pull it apart, burn it, throw it away, whatever, mangle it because they saw it as taking away their livelihoods. So, these were people that had been doing these jobs and had had their jobs replaced by machinery and they feared for their own future, the future of their own existence. How are they going to provide a living, get a salary? How are they going to support their family? Because these machines were taking their jobs away. that's all they saw, they saw that all my jobs are being taken away. So when they were destroying the machinery it was said that the machines were inhuman, as if to say that they were indirectly killing off human beings, it's such an inhuman horrible thing. Time goes by, people get used to mechanization, I guess the guys running the factories hide security guards, in any case you can't stop the mechanization because ultimately mechanization drives lower cost. So the people that own the factory say, I want to mechanize this so that I don't have to pay all my staff members, I have to pay one or two people to maintain the machinery and then I can run the machines 24 hours a day, seven days a week, non-stop. So my new robotic staff, mechanical staff that I employ now, my machines, they don't whinge, they don't complain, they don't get sick, Yeah, all those advantages, all the obvious stuff. And the funny thing is that automation these days is taking that to the next level. So, this sort of discussion of the Luddites, the reason I bring up the Luddites and everything is that this is still happening. There's no movement exactly, but it's still happening today. And just to recount a story that something that that I personally went through. And not sure what the moral of the story is, but here it is anyway. Among my previous jobs, when I was getting more involved with automation systems, there was a factory that we were going to, to look at a new machine for another company we were partnering with. They were building basically a set of conveyors, accelerator conveyors and guillotine and a few other different things, designed to replace a short section of production line. And it was a textile factory. And when we went there, we were told by the owner to speak with the staff he currently had working on the existing machine, which is a highly manual machine, required a lot of interaction. And in many ways, it was actually quite dangerous and people had been injured on the machine. Anyhow, there were seven people working this machine. When we did the design for the new machine, it was only gonna require one. So essentially six people were going to be reallocated to another role within the company whether or not that actually was the result or whether or not they simply would have been laid off. I don't know. And I'll never know because the project never went ahead. But the pushback that we got from those people was exactly the same pushback that the Luddites were carrying out hundreds of years ago. They feared for their jobs because well, let's face it, we were about to replace them with a machine. And this is something that occurred to me, doing predominantly doing automation. I mean, I realize I'm an electrical engineer, but I do a lot of automation in what I do and automating water pipelines, oil and gas pipelines, water and wastewater treatment plants and industrial machines. And you look at it, if you look at it hard enough, and you let yourself think about it, I realized at that moment, and I guess I hadn't realized until that moment, but I got it right then and there that what might I was in the business of putting other people out of work. out of work. And everything that we automated, everything that we made, you know, faster, better, cheaper for the owner was not necessarily better for everybody. And that sort of became a moral dilemma. I mean, what do you do? Do you decide you're just not going to do that anymore? Do you decide, you know, is this the right thing? Should I not do this? And then you go down the path of, well, if I don't do it, then someone else will do it. And someone else who's not having a moral dilemma, we'll simply go ahead and do what I was being asked to do anyway. And it got me thinking about the true drivers here and it's very hard to pick what's right and what's wrong. All I know is that inevitably, this is always the way that our society tends to go and sometimes it makes me quite sad. So when you look at mass production of anything, it always starts out with people building something like whether it's a t-shirt, pair of shoes, you know, keep it simple, something like that, not technology, let's just think about a t-shirt. Well, there will come a point at which it becomes cheaper to program a robot to build and make all the shirts for you. A lot of the stuff these days, the sewing is done partly automated but you still need someone to feed it into the machine. The patterns are still cut, can be cut out automatically from a main sheet but things like sewing on buttons and positioning of that stuff is still you know has a certain degree of difficulty. Inserting the bags and setting the folding and inserting the cardboard cutouts and everything and folding it every and pressing it and inserting it into bags and sealing it is also semi-automated but you still have people involved. Well there'll come a time when those people are no longer required where robots will be able to do everything as we improve our robots and improve our automation and improve our mechanization. So what happens to those people and it's funny because people when we look at a shirt we say well this shirt's worth ten dollars you know or maybe it's a really really nice shirt and it's worth a hundred dollars whatever but you know this shirt's worth whatever it's worth not a huge amount of money I guess and you think about where it's made and it's made in a part of the world where wages are considerably cheaper usually than in your own country that's generally the way it seems to to work in Western culture. It's one of those inconvenient truths that people like to sort of overlook. But then we start automating things and we start saying, well, you know what? These things are now no longer gonna be made by people. These are now gonna be made by machines. So a machine weaves the cloth, machine cuts it, sews it, stitches on the buttons, inserts the cardboard, folds it, presses it, and puts it in a bag and seals it, stamps it and automatically stacks it in a carton. That carton's automatically shoved on a ship ship takes it to wherever it goes and then you go and buy it and all that costs less money than employing people to do it and it's more reliable, more consistent and because it can be run 24 hours a day, seven days a week without a break it therefore becomes cheaper on average. You just need a few specialized people to maintain these robots and then you think to yourself well we've sort of we freed these people from these menial tasks right, these things they're doing a lot of repetition and it's over and over again, this is my 10,000th shirt this week or you know they talk about sweatshops, right? Where there's this image that people have in their minds of these big factories or warehouses with not very good ventilation where you've got thousands of people sewing or doing whatever they're making and you have this idea about how they must be made and just think, you know, we're freeing these people, these people no longer have to do that anymore. They can do something else with their lives. But the funny thing is that a lot of people that have come into roles like that have come into the roles where they used to just be on a farm and they used to farm, you know, rice or wheat or, you know, soya beans, I don't know, whatever, bananas. The point is that they were farming before and they, these jobs were a step up for them and now you put them out of work. And if you don't want to think about that, let's think about technology. Let's think about the Foxconn situation. Now, you've got a lot of parts of the iPhone that are made by a machine. The LCDs have been made through a mechanical process, depositing layers of silicon and etching this and etching that blah, blah, blah, pick and place machines on their, on their production line for making the circuit boards and wave soldering machines, wave soldering machines. And, you know, all that's automated, but the assembly is still physical, you still need someone to click this connector on here, it's all very fiddly, fine work, you know, a little bit of glue here, put it together. But then what happens when when we fully automate that, that's all robotic. And then what all the people in Foxconn be out of a job and those jobs at Foxconn are fought after, highly prized. Why? Because they pay in relative terms in that country, they pay so well and people will work at Foxconn and there are stories of them you know bringing in enough money to support their family for years and years and to us, it's it's a horrid, it's like you're working them how many hours a day, how many days a week and it seems wrong and occasionally, there's stories of people committing suicide and all sorts of of potentially horrible working conditions and you think, you know what, what we're gonna do is we're gonna, you know, we'll automate all this, right? And then when we automate it all, we end up with this, we're freeing these people. They don't, they no longer have to do this assembly anymore. It's all, it's all automated now, it's all robotic. But then what are those people gonna do? Are they gonna go back out to where they came from and they don't, they don't have that income anymore. And so what are they gonna do then? Yeah, it's the same problem. It's just that, you know, we think we've come so far. Nothing's changed. You know, we're just finding new and more inventive ways of automating things. So I got to thinking about what's the alternative. So we know what drives it, it's cost. It's cost. Yeah, it's greed, I guess. If you wanna go even further to the next step, it's greed. Is that people have money, they don't wanna let it go, but they still want what they want. You know, I want a car, but I want it to be cheaper than the model last year. I want a new MacBook Air, but I want it to be cheaper than the last MacBook Air. And companies are forever searching cheaper ways of doing things because obviously then you know they want to buy your product. So they'll buy Apple's product over Dell's product over you know Acer's product presumably based on cost. So companies are forever seeking to drive their costs down to sell more of their stuff. Why not? That's business right? But it all starts with the fact that most people don't want to let go of the money that they have. They still want the same goods and services they just don't want to pay as much for them. So then we think okay well what if people were interested in doing that? What if there was a system where we said, you know, I'm happy to pay a bit more for this because it means that there'll be less automation, that it will be made by hand. And there are actually products out there that are like that. So you can say this is handmade, you know, it's going to cost more. But you don't mind because it's handmade, you know, and that is something that you don't see happen very often. And perhaps it's not even that perhaps there's this, the concept of made in the USA, like with Apple at the moment, with the Mac Pro, it's made using local labor. We're helping our local Americans out by doing this, says Apple, which I think to a certain extent is true, to a certain extent it's marketing spin as well, but either way you want to think about it, that there is a genuine desire to do that. But do you see that on the MacBook Airs that are aggressively priced. No, you don't. And you won't. And if they could fully automate it, they would. And they're moving towards it more every year, because people don't want to pay top dollar for a MacBook Air, for example, or an iPhone. They're happy to pay it for a Mac Pro. It's a premium product. And Apple have produced something beautiful in that new Mac Pro, and people are prepared to pay for it. And that's great that they're doing the whole built in the in the USA because it applies well for that sort of a product. The handmade idea or the made in my country idea, you know, the promotion of local labour, that's a good thing. That's a fight against, to some extent anyway, against the automation, against the putting people out of work. But how many people out there would genuinely say, I am happy to pay. I mean, how much extra is it? What's the line? And I guess it depends on your budget. And that's down to the individual. Would I pay an extra 10% to know that it was fully handmade? 20%, 30%? What if it was 200%? Yeah, at what point is it better to say, you know what, automation's the enemy. I would rather pay more. I realize I'm arguing myself out of a job here in this line of thinking, but you know. - But there's, you know, if we- - What do you think? - What if, well, yeah, I mean, it's a complex subject. So if we take that to, let's take that same line of thinking and apply it to your grocery store, right? And you're going down to the grocery store. Would you pay for a, I don't know, $50 tomato because it was produced lovingly by six farmers who sat there and tended this single tomato plant round the clock. Obviously this is a ridiculous example, right? - It'd be a really nice tasting tomato though. - Well, yes, it'd be a very, it'd be an excellent tomato. - The best tomato you've ever had. - Right, it'd be the best tomato you ever had. So that actually, now that you bring quality into it, that makes it another question. Are you paying for those six people for their incredible care and expertise as farmers who are going to give you the most singular, amazing tasting salad you've ever had? Or are you doing it because you wanna keep them in work? Are you doing it because you have an aesthetic appreciation for the myth of the farmer? Are you doing it because you just really hate pesticides or plows or you know what I'm saying? It's as you break these things down, it gets to the point where you're actually thinking about what's going on. It gets to the point where some of it's almost, it seems to me almost meaningless, right? if we follow that anti-automation too far, then we have to say, well, then shouldn't we all be living on our own little, I mean, own plots of land and all farming our own food and, you know, and I don't know, maybe you're moving that way, John, because you were talking about, you want to get off the grid, you're getting towards a more independent kind of, like a Jeffersonian American view of things, where you're in charge of, you know, your own destiny, except that the problem with that is throughout history that was typically supported by slavery. And to me, that's what machines are, right? They're slaves that we don't have to worry about because they don't have souls, they're not alive. And it's really tough. It's a tough thing because you can, making that, taking that example, doing what I just said, it's a jerk move to do that, right? Because it's setting aside, it's sidestepping the very real, you know, and difficult to absorb disruptions that happen when automation either creates new work because I mean, those jobs in China are also are, that have opened up making, you know, in Foxconn have opened up because of automation and technology that has enabled faster transportation and network effects inside Shenzhen and those cities that have grown up are, you know, technology enabled that and now humans fit into that piece of technology or into that framework of technology in a very real way, but yeah, eventually they won't. And so if they don't manage to get out into to build some other economy, some other service industry or design centers, or if they can't pull more things into the local economy there before it gets cheaper to just do it with a machine, then there's gonna be very real problem. But if they can, then maybe it's all worth it. - Yeah, I think that the fundamental issue that I've got with this whole situation is it's the level at which people are interested and or capable of changing what they do. - Right. - It's like, I'm a strong believer that you can teach anyone to do anything. It's just that it's a matter of their motivation and how much patience you have in the end. Some people may be easy to teach certain tasks than others, but irrespective, we human beings are pretty flexible. We can learn quite a lot. And when people are doing a highly manual, highly repetitive task, they become very, very efficient at it, very, very good at it generally, because the repetition, it looks like learning to walk or anything else. And you'll sit there watching someone that's been making the same shirt 10,000 times, and then you'll go and sit down and try and do it first time. It'll be absolutely terrible. And that'll be through their fifth shirt by the time you're doing the first button on your first shirt. And you look at that and say, that's amazing. Now you go and automate all that and take those people away and say, right, now you guys have to relearn something else. So something else that we haven't learned to automate yet, something like a higher level job, like moving to design, excuse me, or start programming, learn how to program in Objective-C or C# or whatever, Java even. All of that stuff is the need. - Not a horrible thing. - Yes, well, if it's Java. Anyway. I kid, Java's not that bad. Anyway, it's just that, you know, forcing those people to say, "Well, you know what, all of your skills and knowledge and expertise has now just been made obsolete. You now must upskill, retrain, you know, change tack, do something else." And I think it's at that level of disruption is where the morality issue lies, is Inevitably, people are going to find make do things to make things cheaper. That's driven by individual greed and so on. And that's just what people want. But the issue is all of the people that are left behind and that sort of burden. I feel like there should be some easing of that burden like some and some companies will actually do this. If they make people redundant for some reasons, then they will actually go through and say, we will fund your reskilling. Choose what you would like to do and you can still have an active role in the company. It's not exactly commonplace but it does happen and it does exist and I think that's the right way of dealing with it. So, I'm not sure what the real answer is to this discussion. I just think that it's something that prize on my mind from time to time and it is something that people-- I think it would be useful for people to be more aware of when they're buying products is to think about how it came to be and what sacrifices different people have made and what other people are doing in order to bring them the stuff that they have. And I don't advocate the whole, you know, you sort of said, I'm sort of unplugging from the grid and how far I would go with that. Well, I'm not going to start growing my own food because anything I plant in the ground goes brown, black and dies. So I have two black thumbs, that's for sure. And so that's no good. And as for the whole electricity thing, well, yeah, I'm just, I'm looking to save costs. And if I can help, you know, reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time, so much the better, but you know, there's sort of, I think that there's, in society it starts out very individual. So you start out with everyone has their own ice box, but there's a centralized person distributing all the ice. And then you move to, everyone has their own refrigerators. They don't need the ice man anymore. And we have corner shops everywhere to do the distribution and then we get better vehicles and better roads and then we centralize to supermarkets and then all the corner stores go out of business. And we centralize, we centralize, we centralize. And then we realize, oh, okay, I need organic stuff. So I'm gonna start growing my own organic tomatoes or organic potatoes or whatever. I'm gonna do that myself 'cause I wanna know what's going into them. And I don't trust the big supermarkets anymore. And so then we start to sort of reach a balance or a compromise as some things that are best that belong centralized and some things that are best decentralized. And I think electricity is one of those things and certain people will push that way with foodstuffs as well. But anyway, I just think it's an interesting discussion but I'm not sure what the moral of the story is exactly. - Well, it's, you know, I think it's accelerating and it's something that- - Oh, it's gonna get worse. Yeah, it's gonna get worse. And it's going to, there's this very human thing that will shake our heads and make all tsk tsk noises and sound really sad and upset about the unskilled people that we don't really hang out with that lost their jobs. And we'll secretly think to ourselves, well, that can't happen to us because what we do is special. It's unique. and whether you're a programmer or barber, truck driver or whatever, everything's fair game. - Absolutely. - Pick me a profession that isn't replaceable, right? That doesn't see that coming down the pike. I can't think of one. Yeah, what were you gonna say? - Actually, can I just quickly say I can think of one and that's an artist. - Right, that's about it. - Because you can't define what art is or isn't, therefore you can't replicate it. Anyhow, I guess though, if you had a robot and you had like some kind of random number generator driving their choice of paints, you might end up with Picasso or something. But okay, I was gonna give you an example of trucks. You mentioned truck drivers. One of the things that I get involved with from time to time is mining. And I was reading about an article, a friend of mine, another fellow engineer sort of pointed me at this article and I'm like, "Oh, are you serious they're doing this?" What a lot of people don't realize is that the massive trucks that they drive out of the coal pits or out of the mine pits where they've dug a deep hole in the ground to dig out a mineral and ore or coal, something like that. They load up the back of these massive trucks. These things are huge. You know, they're like five times the height of a normal truck or something. And they're just enormous. Anyway, those drivers were paid a lot of money for hazard pay because, oh, what if they drove accidentally into the pit? There's some problem. They could die. It's really serious. Statistically it hardly ever happened, but irrespective there are lots and lots of money. So what did they do? Well, they went and they automated them all at one of these mines. And there's actually a mine, there's a few mines now in Australia that have got this and it's become more common as well in the United States as well and around the world. They put GPS tracking on the trucks, they basically have a set of cameras on the forward and some of the back of of the car, the sides of the, I said car, I meant massive monster truck thing and they are basically driven automatically. And the funny thing, well one of the funny offshoots of that I guess is that by eliminating all those people from that job, they all lost their jobs and they just had one or two people in a central control room keeping an eye on trucks that were not doing what they were supposed to be doing. And of course, they could run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all that other stuff we already said and you would think, oh, that could only be a positive for the mind. Here's a funny little thing that happens when you do that, because it was GPS tracked and because it was so accurate and because it was always exactly the same path. And I mean to within the fraction of an inch, they started to develop ruts in the road because they were always going over exactly the same bit of dirt. Whereas a human driver would vary left and right several inches when they're going up and down these roads. And they had to actually introduce a program that staggered the path of the truck to mimic a human driver so that the roads would get more even wear and tear. It's like it's like drum machines that reintroduce a little bit of error, a little bit of drift to the time, so it sounds more human. That's that, yeah, exactly that good musical analogy, exactly. But anyway, look, yeah, absolutely. No one is safe. That's the message and no profession is safe and inevitably, every now and then I have this, the scenes out of "I, Robot", which is a movie that Will Smith was in a few years ago. I actually love that movie. But the point is that in "I, Robot", they had, you know, F4 and S5 robots that were quite capable of doing anything we could do and better and faster. And it was just amazing, you know, watching that because it's sort of, that's a glimpse of where it's all going. Whether or not it gets there as quickly as it does that movie, because people tend to overreach on the future, they think it's closer than it really is. So we're about to hit 2015, where are our hover cars? They're in Back to the Future in 2015, but they're not here yet, so where's my hover car? I want a hover conversion done. Carhack? No, not yet. We've been ripped off, Ben. Well that's it. Do we have a dystopia, or do we have a utopia at the end of the day? It's a tough one because you run into politics really quickly and you run into human nature and It's it's I really like what? Buckminster Fuller wrote about this saying that it's it's essentially it's a race that's going to be run up till the very end that you can't You can't just assume that it's gonna work out right and you also can't assume that it's gonna work out Terribly you've done you just requires constant attention Absolutely If you want to talk more about this, you can find John on twitter at John chigi It's the same on app net you can check out John's site tech distortion comm and if you'd like to send an email You can send it to John at tech distortion comm I'm Ben Alexander and you can reach me on twitter at Fiat Lux FM Or you can see show announcements and related materials by following the show account at pragmatic show on Twitter. Thanks for listening everyone Thanks, John Thank you [MUSIC] [Music] (upbeat music) you
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Ben Alexander

Ben Alexander

Ben created and runs and Fiat Lux

John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

Described as the David Attenborough of disasters, and a Dreamy Narrator with Great Pipes by the Podfather Adam Curry.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.