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
This is pragmatic weekly discussion show, depleting the practical application of technology exploring the real-world trade-offs we take a look at our great ideas are transformed into products and services they can change our lives nothing is as simple as it seems and that Alexander McCall hostess John Chitty manager good morning Ben Heydon got into the S sounds we honour but anyhow okay am I just want to open the show with the again some thanks are for all the reviews we've been getting and ratings are thank you so much to everyone who has submitted one is actually quite a few now so appreciate that are also wife Agar Michael Solis for the kind words as well about show and another special thank you to our Mike Wortley these are written a nice follow-up piece about automation which we will address in the follow-up shortly and there is a link to his follow-up in the show notes if you want to go check it out so getting stuck running our came up in conversation in the last ever so we talked about ideology and that this episode I will say that rain check for another day in that rain check was about I guess I've been struggling with the right way of putting it is sort of the morality of technology of the morality of automation in particular or mechanisation and I guess I'm not strong originally conclusions was what I talk about and explore a little bit more see where it leads as so it all began hair loss stories of some other little began way back in the first industrial revolution which the exact time of that is sort of a bit vague so somewhere between the hours 1760 and 1820 which is a rather big gap are running through to about 1840 or so and it was really driven by the invention of reciprocating steam engine and is the English in particular push mechanisation a lot of manual chores so things like looms things like her looms mills CO different factories and staff where people were manually making things they push mechanisation quite a bit and it started to spread around the world as people realise there was a cost saving they generally recognise there was a second Industrial Revolution from 1840 1970s it was driven by the refinement of the steam engine to a point at which it was incorporated into steam trains and steamships and that essentially ended our reliance on on horses and on our sailing ships which can only go whenever there was wind so and that of course shrunk the world so communication was faster and it will give move product around so that means you could centralise in any you could then say while I'm going to spend more money on mechanise in fact a factor in this location because now I have steam trains that I can move my product around all these different places I see 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 Revolution's or the Industrial Revolution I consider as a whole that sort of driver movement are 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 are meant for the sum, rock arm that anyway I was migrants at the time I guess but anyway and having dug into this a little bit it's it's unclear exactly sure where the name Luddite came from but it was often attributed to a guy called Ned Lund who smashed some stocking frames in 1779 and the movement peak between was during the 1810s so during the first Industrial Revolution really and what they would do as I would literally the Luddites movement would go around England destroying all the machinery that they literally just come in there and just smacked pieces pull apart Bernard throw it away whatever mangle it and because they saw as taking away their livelihoods so these are people that had been doing these jobs and have made had their jobs replaced by machinery and is they feared for their own their own future the future of their own existence to how they going to provide a living get a salary are how are they gonna support their family because these machines that were taking their jobs away they'd they'd that's all they saw a solar one my jobs are being taken away so when they were destroyed machinery was said that the machines were inhuman as of the say that they were they were directly are indirectly killing off human human beings are such an inhuman horrible thing time goes by people get used to mechanisation arm so I guess the guys Reina factories hired security guards are in any case you can't stop the mechanisation because ultimately mechanisation drives lower cost so the people that own the factory say I want to mechanise this so that I don't have to pay on my 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 mitten my new robot robotic staff mechanical staff that I employ now my machines they don't they don't whinge that I complained I get sick 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 last reason I bring up the lights and everything is that this is still happening there is no movement exactly but it's still happening today and is just to recount a story arm that sorry I personally went through and not sure the moral of the story is but here it is anyway are my previous jobs when I was getting more involved with our automation systems there was a factory that we were going to to our look at a new machine for a another company we were partnering with now building a basically Agar a set of conveyors Excelerator conveyors and guillotine in your different things designed to replace a short section a production line and that 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 highly manual machine required a lot of interaction in many ways is 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 require one so essentially six people were going to be reallocated to another role in the company whether or not that actually was the result when I said we were 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 is something that occurred to me doing predominately doing automation you are a Rosen lecture engineer but I do a lot of automation and what I do and automating our water pipelines oil and gas pipelines water wastewater treatment plants and industrial machines and you look at if you look at hard enough and you let yourself think about your I realised at that moment and I guess I hadn't realised until that moment I'd I got it right then and there that what might I was in the business of putting other people at work and everything that we automated everything that we made no faster better cheaper for the owner was not necessarily better for everybody in a sort of a disorder became a moral dilemma in what you do to you decide is not I do that anymore you decide you is this the right thing you should or should not do this and then you go down the path of well if I don't do it and someone else will do it and someone else is not having a moral dilemma will simply go ahead and do what I was being asked to do anyway and is 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 new look at mass production of anything it always starts out with people building something like whether it's a T-shirt. Shoes now given symbols and I do not acknowledge… Think about T-shirt for 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 car all a lot of the a lot of stuff these days the sewing is done are partly automated but you still need someone to feed in the machine there the patterns are still cargo can be cut out automatically from a from a mainsheet but things like sewing on buttons and positioning of that stuff is still you have a certain degree of difficulty inserting the bags and saying that the folding and it's only cardboard cutouts and everything unfolding in every and pressing it and instilling is about concealing it is also semiautomated you still have people involved were, time when those people are no longer required where robots will be able to do everything as we improve our robots improve our automation and improve our mechanisation so what happens to those people and it's funny because people when we look at a shirt we say will the show worth $10 arm or maybe it's a really really nice shirt and a $1200 whatever but the initiates 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 your own country that is generally the way it seems to work in Western culture it swallows inconvenient truth is that people like to sort of overlook but then we start automating things and we start saying we know what these these things are now no longer be made by by people these are now can be made by machines so machine weaves the cloth machine cuts it so that stitches on the buttons inserts the cardboard folds it presses it and put it in the bag and seals that stamp sentence and automatically stacks in a carton that can't automatically shot on a ship and the ship takes it to wherever it goes in the new gone by and all that cost less money than employing people to do it and it's more reliable more consistent and because it can be run 21st day seven days a week without a break it therefore becomes cheaper on average used in a few specialised people maintain these robots anything this follow we've sort of we freed these people from these menial tasks write these these things are doing a lot of repetition and it's over again as my 10,000th shirt this week or go they talk about sweatshops right where is this image that people have in their minds of these these big factories and warehouses would not not very good ventilation legal thousands of people sewing or doing whatever that did the making you have these lease there is this idea about how they must be made and just think you were refereeing these people as people no longer have to do that anymore maybe something else of their lies with the funny thing is that a lot of people have come into roles like that have come into roles with a base to just be on a farm maze to farm the over rice or four weeks or you soybeans I whatever bananas the point is that they were farming before and they've they've these jobs were step up for them and now you put them our work and if you know anything about outsourcing about technology let's let's think about the Fox con situation now you've got a lot of parts of the iPhone that are made by machine the LCDs be be made from a commission mechanical process depositing layers of silicon and etching this and etching that blah blah pick in place machines on their on the production line for making the circuit boards and wave soldering machines sway sari machines and you know all that is automated but the assembly is still physical you still need someone to collect this connector on here it's all very fiddly fine work and a little bit of glue people together but then what happens when when we fully automate that as all robotic and then what all the people falsely out of a job and those jobs are Fox con arm afford after a highly prized why because they pay real in relative terms in that country they pay so well and people will work at Fox: there are stories of them are bringing in of May to support their family for years and years and to assets it submits abhorrent it's like you're working them how many hours a day how many days a week and it seems wrong and and occasionally the stories of people committing suicide and and all sorts of's potentially horrible working conditions and you think you want to do is we can't be able automate all this right in among automated all we end up with this sum were freeing these people they don't they no longer have to do this assembly anymore it's all it's all my automated nouns all robotic but then one of those people can I do though they can go back out to when I came from and they don't they don't have that income anymore is what are they gonna do that at the same problem it's just that you know we we think we've come so far nothing's changed and we just finding new and more inventive ways of automating things so I got to thinking about what's the alternative to what drives its cost it's excuse cost Yates agreed I guess there are if you are going further to the next step it's great as a people people have money that will let it go but they still what they want now I want a car but I want to be cheaper than the model last year I want a new MacBook Air but I want to be cheaper than last MacBook Air and companies are forever searching for cheaper ways of doing things because obviously then you know they will buy your products and buy Apple's product over Del's product over the aces product presumably based on cost so countries are forever seeking to drive the cost down to sell more of their staff one of its business right but all starts with the fact that most people don't want to let go of the moment they have a store the same goods and services is on a pay as much for them so then we think okay will 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 will be less automation that will be made by hand and there are actually products out there that are like that CSO this is handmade you know it's gonna cost more but you don't mind because it is handmade you know and that is something that you don't Sever happen very often and perhaps is not even that perhaps there is this so the concept of arm made in the USA like with with Apple the moment with the macro it's made using local labour where we are helping our local Americans out by doing this as Apple arm which you I think to a certain extent is true arm to a certain extent is marketing spin as well but either way I think about that there is a genuine desire to do that but do you see that on the MacBook Air's that are aggressively priced no you don't and you won't and if they could fully automated they would in their moving towards a more every year because people don't want to pay top dollar for a MacBook Air for example foreign iPhone adult to happy to pay for a Mac Pro to premium product and Apple of ego have produced something beautiful that you Mac Pro people are prepared to pay for it in and that's great that they're doing a whole built in the USA because it applies well for that sort of a product the handmade idea of the made in my country idea you know the promotion of local labour that's that's a good thing as 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 it how how much extra is it was the line and I guess it depends on your budget and and and and that's down to the individual would I pay an extra 10% to know that it was fully handmade 20% 30% was 200% you will point is is it better to say you know what automation is the enemy I would rather pay more I realise arguing myself out of a job here in this line of thinking rather you know there's enough to think what well you music is a complex opposite we take that to this think that the mind of thinking and apply to Europe grocery store rate and going down the grocery store would you pay for a $50 to meadow because it was produced lovingly by six farmers who sat there and tended the single meadow plan round the clerk is a ridiculous example rate to be a really nice tasting tomato well yes it is really about Nvidia India to be the best metre you had died so that maximum value and quality in automated another are you paying for those six people with their incredible carer and an expertise as foreigners were going to give you the more singular easing testing our salad you battery-powered or are you doing because you want to keep them in work are you doing it because you have an aesthetic appreciation for the myth of the elder farmer are you doing it because you just really he pesticides or ploughs or you examine it it's as it was you break these things down it gets you out of what we are actually thinking about what's going on it gets the point were some of its most seems to be almost meaningless rate that if we if we followed that entire automation to fire then we have to say well then should we all be living on a on the on plots of land and all farming around food and we adult and maybe ripping that wave time because your target about you want to get off the graduate you're getting towards a more arm independent kind of like our Jacksonian American view of things where you are in charge of you know your destiny except that the problem with that is there a history that was typically supported by slavery and and its and their intermediates what machines are rate the sleeves that we don't have to worry about because they don't have souls in our life and its it's really it is a Taser typing because it you can eight meeting attic segment example doing what is that it's a joke moved to do that rate because it is setting aside as if sidestepping the very real you know it out and difficult to absorb disruptions that how then ran a when automation either creates new new workers only that those jobs in and inside are also are that a bit of open up meeting on flux can't have open up because of automation and technology that has enabled fatter transportation and arm and network affect inside our sons and and and those cities that have that have grown up our yacht technology enabled out and now humans fit into that piece of technology Aryan into the into those are that framework of technology in a very real way that you eventually will cancel if they don't manage to get out into you not to build some other economy some other are your service industry or a design centre is not thinking the Paul more things into the local economy there before it gets cheaper to just do it with the machine and there is gonna be very real problem but if they can the media's work that yeah II think that the fundamental issue that I've got with this this whole situation is it's the level level at which people are interested and/or capable of changing what they do it's you know it's like I 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 you whip him we human beings are pre-flexible we can learn quite a lot and it when people are doing a highly manual highly repetitive task they become very very efficient at very very good are generally because the repetition the oversight Wayne Walker anything else in your sit there watching someone it's been making the same shirt 10,000 times in the new guys are down trying to at first I will be absolutely terrible and they'll be through their fifth shirt by the time you do in the first button on your first shirt and you you look at Alison that's amazing ego 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 automate yet something like a higher-level job and I like moving to design excuse me all start programming yellowhammer program in Objective-C or C# or you whatever Java even though all that stuff the horrors that he has well it wouldn't jump a right arm for our IQ jobs anyway it's just that you forcing those people disable know what all your skills in a and in knowledge and expertise is now just been made obsolete you now must up skill retrain your change tack do something else and I think it's at that level of disruption is is is whether the morality issue lies is inevitably people can find make much ado beings to make things cheaper that's Joe driven by individual greed and so on… What people want that the issue is all the people are left behind and that sort of burden I feel like there should be some easing of that burden like some and some companies I will actually do the survey make people redundant for some reasons and they will actually go through and say we will fund your reskilling the eight choose choose what you would like to do and you still have active role in the company it's it's not exactly commonplace but it does happen it does exist and I think that's the right way of dealing with so I'm not sure what the real answer is to this discussion I just think that it's it's something that prize in 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 Joe how it came to be and what sacrifices different people of made and what other people doing it wanted to bring them the stuff that they have and I don't advocate the whole your use of said the arms of unplugging from the grid and how far I'll go with that well in August I grow my own food because anything I plan the ground goes brown black dies so I have I have two black farms is for sure and some so that's no good and as for the whole electricity thing well yeah I just on looking to save costs and if I can help you reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time so much the better but you live this sort of I think that there is in society it starts out very individual so you start out with everyone has their own ice box but as a centralised person distributing all the ice and the new move to everyone has a refrigerators that only the iceman anymore and is you we we we have corner shops everywhere do the distribution and then we get better vehicles and better roads than we centralised supermarkets and all the core stores go out of out of our business and we centralised we centralised we centralised and then we realise IK I need organic stuff song a star grow my own organic tomatoes or organic potatoes whatever only do that myself as I want to know what's going into them and I trust the big supermarkets anymore and so then we started sort of reach a balance or a compromise are some things with the best that belong centralised and something to the best decentralised I think electricity is one of those things in certain certain people will push that way with foodstuffs as well but anyway I do think it's an interesting discussion but I I'm not sure what the moral of the story is exactly well it's in I think is accelerating and it's something that I was getting worse it here if it's it's gonna get worse as can it's going to the others that there is is very human thing that that well and I will shake our hands on me gold discussed noises and sound really sad and upset about that the unskilled people that we don't really hang out with that lost their jobs and well are sickly thinker save souls that can happen to us because what we do is you know it's a special it's unique and whether you're a programmer or Barbara are truck driver or whatever everything is fair again and absolutely give your profession that isn't replaceable right that if that isn't it doesn't see that coming down the pike accounting we are what you say are my sheep" as I can think of one and as an artist that allowed it because you can't define what art is or isn't there for you can't replicate it anyhow I guess though if you had a robot you had like some colour random number generator driving their their choice of paint Simon up with Picasso or something okay I was going to be an example trucks you mention truck drivers I am one of the things that I get involved with entire time is mining and is I was reading about an article friend of mine are another fellow engineers or point me in this article and on my guy you seriously doing this what a lot of people don't realise that the massive trucks that they drive out of the coal pits or out of the mine pits where they've they've dug deep on the ground to dig out the mineral or coal something like that they load up the back of these massive trucks using the huge you know though I five times the height of a normal truck or something that is enormous anyway those drivers were paid a lot of money for hazard pay because of what they drove accidentally made of some problem they could they could dies really serious statistically it hardly ever happened that irrespective our lots and lots of money so what do they do well they went may automate the more that one of these mines and is actually mine is a few mines now and in Australia have got this and it's it's become more common as well 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 the car the sides of the nicer car I met massive monster truck being and is they are basically driven automatically and the funny thing while other funny options analogous is that by eliminating all those people from that that job they all lost their jobs and they just had one or two people and a central control room keeping an eye on trucks that were not doing what they are supposed to be doing any course I could run 20 rest day seven days a week although stuff reset and you would think they can only be positive for the mine is a funny little thing that happens when you do that because it was GPS tracker because it was so accurate because it was always exactly the same path and I mean to within the frame fraction of an inch they started to develop ruts in the road because they were always going over exactly the same bitter dirt wasn't human driver would vary left and right several inches when I going up and down these roads and they had to actually introduce a program that staggered the path of the trust to mimic human driver so that the roads would get more even wear and tear it's like I've like drum machines that reintroduce a little bit of error would have drifted the times of sounds what you that's that yet exactly that good good musical analogy exactly but anyway that the absolute no-no want a safe that's the message and that no profession is safe and in inevitably are a renown I have is that this the scenes out of my robot arm which is a movie that will Smith was in a few years ago are actually love that movie that the point is that in I and I robot they had you for an S5 robots that were go quite capable of doing anything we could do and better and faster and it was just amazing you watching that because it's a lesser glimpse of where it's all going whether or not it gets there as quickly as it does in that movie because people tend overreach on on the future they sent me they feel it's closer than it really is so were about to hit 2015 where a hover car is exactly the barrier back to the future in 2015 but they are there not here yet so what's where is my hobby, I will holler conversion done can't make out where we been ripped off then that there is it's it's do we have a dystopia already we have do we have a utopia at the end of the day arm and it is a tough one because you you run into politics really quickly and you run into human nature arm and it's it's I really like why are what Mr Fuller wrote about the Senate is exactly as it's a race that is going to be run up till the very end that you can our you can just assume that it's gonna work out rate annuals against humans can work out our terrible you don't you just requires constant attention absolutely if you want a lot more about this you can find John on Twitter at John Geagea in subtheme and after that you trigger John state distortion do come and leave them email you can send it to John attack distortion do come and then Alexander and you can reach me on Twitter at Fiat like southbound frequency show announcements and related materials by following the show account at pragmatic shop thanks for listening everyone�
Duration 31 minutes and 7 seconds Direct Download

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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.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.