Robot workers versus human workers
The question whether it is ethically and morally responsible to
manufacture robot workers - and androids - is one of the most frequently asked questions
when it comes to robots and
There are no easy answers here. The debate has been going for some
time and there are several possible outcomes.
The argument that robot workers take jobs from human workers is true
(see Introduction to Robotics).
It is also true that these jobs are generally repetitive jobs,
monotonous and often hazardous to human workers. Is it wrong then to
replace humans with robots in these cases?
It isn't if there are enough other jobs these humans can turn to. It
is if it leaves thousands of people out of work altogether. These are
the simple answers.
Economics, capitalism and socialism
A more detailed answer lies in the progress and development of
countries as well as advances in science and technology.
The wealthier countries have enjoyed rapid advancement in science and
technology, enabling them to automate many facets of society. In
combination with a high standard of education these countries have a
reduced need for uneducated workers that are willing to do repetitive
work such as factory work.
And as even the uneducated nationals of these countries have been
subject to improved wealth many refuse to do these jobs. In this
scenario the options for manufacturers are limited.
One option is to keep the factories local and "employ" robots to do
the work at a reduced cost - and often higher efficiency compared to
human workers - to keep the profit line.
Another option is to stimulate uneducated migrant workers from other
countries to come and do these jobs in semi-automated factories. This causes all sorts of social and
A third option, which is more often seen these days, is to combine
the above two - move the factory to a low income country AND employ
In this scenario, yes, human workers lose out all around.
Corporate economics stipulate to manufacture a product as cheaply as
possible so that the bottom line - the profit margin - remains as high
as possible. That is the capitalistic point of view and often the only
one that counts.
While this is fine for a corporate philosophy, governments, on the
other hand, have the responsibility to look after their citizens and
maintain a level of socialism so that everyone has a job and benefits
from the general wealth. This also reduces the burden of welfare
costs - taking care of those who cannot, for whatever reason, take care
of themselves and their families.
Unfortunately many governments these days have become capitalistic in
their policies and, instead of looking after their citizens and reducing
their own overhead as much as possible, have come to see the citizenry
as a source of income for themselves and over-tax them, placing an
additional financial burden on an already shrinking income.
In addition governments are often catering to large corporations for
more income, disregarding the workers' needs, and ultimately the workers
have become victims of a two-pronged attack on their independence.
And this not only applies to uneducated or factory workers. The
middle classes are increasingly under duress in the wealthier nations as
their jobs too are leaving the country to nations in development where
these jobs can be done more cheaply. Capitalism at its best.
So what does all this have to do with the ethical issue of robots in
the workplace? Quite a lot, in fact. The obvious fact that robot workers
are cheaper, more efficient and do not complain or require expensive
social systems is a dangerous development for a growing world population
without means to support themselves or their families.
As such, the doom scenario predictions by those opposed to this
development seems to be grounded. But what are the options? Stop
scientific development and ignore the benefits that robot workers can
As in other areas of our increasingly complex civilization it is
necessary to obtain a balance.
A balance between robot and human workers
So the real question is how to obtain a balance between using
the development of technology without causing undue hardship.
When computers started entering the workplace it was proclaimed by
many that they would take jobs away from ordinary people. This has
certainly been true. But, in a developing world where the flow of data
and information has become crucial for society to function, it has also
created many new jobs - not least of all in the computer industry
itself. In fact, the computer industry has created millions of jobs -
for educated workers.
The key issue here is that the local work force has had sufficient
education to upgrade itself at the same pace as technology, creating the
need as well as the development base for robot workers. In the United
States and Europe, uneducated migrant workers are used for simple labor
rather than robots, creating social and economic problems for
governments and tax payers.
Migration is not necessarily a bad thing though it has caused
problems in many places. Cultural and religious differences are creating
conflict and chaos where there was once peace and welfare for all.
So why are we not building robots to do these jobs? Do we really need
street cleaners, park attendants, and garbage collectors in human form?
Robots can do these jobs much more efficiently. And without the
continuous cost and social upheaval.
As with artificial
intelligence, we can make robots to make our lives easier, handling
tasks that we do not want or cannot do. There is nothing wrong with
Robots as helpers
Robots can be useful tools as much as computers are useful tools in
our everyday and working lives. Taking over more of the repetitive,
time consuming tasks so that we can spend our time more usefully.
Provided the costs are low, a farmer can employ agricultural robots
that till and seed the land, do the weeding and harvest the crops. A
local robot workplace can take care of any necessary maintenance, for
example, providing jobs. Would this robot run on
solar energy it
would be even better.
In the food industries robots are better and more humane butchers, as
odd as that may sound. They can collect the billions of plastic bags now
littering the world, underwater bots can clean up the garbage seas in
the Pacific. They can reforest the land, clean up the rivers.
In the home, robot machines and cleaners can do the housework and
other chores, leaving us with more time on our hands to spend with
family, work, study or leisure activities.
In hospitals robots can provide assistance in laboratories and
operating rooms, dispensing medicines, for example, and do cleaning
work. Or even do straightforward surgical procedures. The possibility of
robots working at a micro precision scale may even make them more
suitable for these procedures.
Robots of all sizes, including
nanorobots, can clean up our landscapes, our seas, replant trees by
the millions and so forth. They can monitor our environment and go
out into space for us (see Robots in
space) to look for resources and other worlds for us to live on.
And, of course, we can have robots fight our wars for us.
In short, we can manufacture robots to do all that we do not want to
do for any reason. Perhaps our point of view is simply too limited or
self-centred to accept the possibilities of robots as part of our
development as a technological society.
Robot pragmatism versus human desire
It all sounds wonderful and perhaps at some time in the future, when
the world isn't preoccupied with greed, when governments return to
listening to their citizens, and corporations are satisfied with
profitability rather than maximizing profit by any and all means in the
short term, will
we see robots as the workers and helpers they are, rather than simply
cheaper replacements for people.
It is certainly not an impossible goal, though perhaps a long term
one. In the meantime we should continue to examine the development of
robots in the workplace with some degree of scepticism, keeping a
balance between actual need and greed.
But the robot ethical issue has complications on a wider
scale. Without changing our priorities from greed to "Doing the
right thing" - such as taking care of all the people rather than
a select few - we need to also address issues such as world
population, migrant workers, environmental issues, diminishing
resources, corporate monopolies and so forth.
And robots are more than mechanical workers.
intelligence developments make the day that our children are
taught by artificial intelligence teachers come closer all the
time. And this is still only the tip of the iceberg.
(automated) control systems - also need examining in this
respect and how they tie in to the overall picture of human
For more on this issue see also
Issues Regarding Artificial Intelligences.