An intimidating word to some, “automation” is such a loosely-defined concept that people tend to make as much (or as little) of it as they wish. It’s increasingly evident that we are at a point in history in which both the allure and the concern regarding automation are at yet another peak. But, no matter how you define it, automation is by no means a stranger to the world we live in. One could argue that all tools perform an automated process to some extent. By that definition, automation can be traced back to the roots of human civilization itself. On the other hand, you could say that it is merely any process or mechanism that occurs without human input. This traces automation to the development of the first feedback-controlled mechanism: the water clock of Ancient Egypt (300 BCE). A more-widely accepted definition today might be the resulting tool or process by which an existing human-aided task no longer requires human interference. This one places our origin point with the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. The truth of the matter is that it’s not really one definition or the other. All of these definitions and accompanying historical milestones exhibit themselves as symptoms of human development. There is a need. There is a desire. There is a thought, then there is a tool! That’s really all it is: a tool. And, like all tools, automation in itself is not inherently bad – nor is it inherently good.
Depending on your approach in automating a process, you could end up painted as a heroic innovator or a job thief. The debate around automation is not new to us, but it is certainly more and more intense. A disproportionately-large amount of the public perception on this topic is fed by the media, leaving dramatized remnant images of robotic domination or more realistic yet critical depictions of actually-automated processes. In any case, there is no doubt that recent technological advancements and the rising stakes being held toward automation already have real, felt consequences. As such, buzzwords like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics are beginning to occupy corporate board rooms in an actually-meaningful manner. Unlike the previous introduction of mere technological tools (e.g. e-mail, or word processing software), the principles of today’s automation come with a kind of unprecedented autonomy associated with them. Your POS, for example, may come equipped with the ability to analyze sales data in a way that suggests viable changes to your business model. It may also manage inventory, and there is a corresponding robot out there that with restock your shelves accordingly.
They’re Taking Over! Are They?
This kind of co-management or sometimes complete replacement of human functionality raises concerns in two ways. The first concern is about the level of control we have over our own world and our businesses, the second concern is about our jobs. The concern about control might be unfounded. Outside of the picture that Hollywood paints for us in the likes of Terminator, the development or the halt of automation is really up to us, collectively, as humans. It really is a product of our needs, desires, and thoughts. As such, it is under our control in terms of ethical engineering and ethical legislation.
Eye on the Target
The concern about jobs, on the other hand, is really a question of context. Where we place automation in the conversation determines whether or not this concern genuinely applies. Are we speaking about automation as development or automation as a business strategy? As stated above, automation is merely a tool that can go either way. Its employment for the sake of unemployment is the target for those concerned over their jobs. The distinction here is that the burden of answering the concern now lies in a question of intention, an intention which is tied to a motive, and a motive which is tied to an economic principle. Given the intention, the objective is bound to occur one way or the other, automation is merely one of many approaches available. But to demand a halt to the process of automation itself is to place handcuffs on the progress of science and engineering. It other words, it is demanding the suspension of human development. Businesses should be free to develop in accordance with the times as they wish. But that’s not to say the concern is invalid. Indeed, businesses should be held accountable for the decisions they make on account of their working force. But that’s exactly why this reframing is important, it recenters the worker and places a demand on society as a whole, including businesses, to retool workers in accordance with automation. The rise of new automation comes with a demand for new skills, and that’s exactly what is needed for today’s workers: new apprenticeships and educational opportunities afforded by the stakeholders of the new reality.
There are many more arguments in the debate on automation, but all concerns on every end of the spectrum require the democratization of knowledge surrounding automation. Accordingly, they require a resistance to the significant rise in technocracy. To achieve ethical engineering and ethical legislation in all technological regards is to achieve an adequate system of checks and balances. This system requires a solid understanding of the factors at play when it comes to automation. As it stands, public knowledge on topics such as automation is largely misconstrued, and the sources remain mostly inaccessible to non-technical readers. This deprives both workers and business owners of the conceptual and linguistic tools needed to make their needs clear and realized, and maintains the cycle of technocratic tendencies that intensify the automation debate without resolution.