by Ruth Amey, BSA West Yorkshire branch volunteer 

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Are robots a threat to our jobs or will they free us from repetitive work? Can our lives be improved with automation or will we lose aspects of human interaction?

The British Science Association’s ‘Future Debates’ topic for winter 2016 was robotics and autonomous systems. The West Yorkshire branch chose the title ‘Is More Automation for the Better?’ to debate – with teams facetiously named ‘probots’ and ‘nobots’. The panel included lecturers from the University of Leeds; Dr Helen Morely, lecturer in applied and professional ethics, Dr Kevin Macnish, lecturer in applied ethics at University of Leeds and Dr Jordan Boyle, lecturer in engineering systems, alongside Dr John Baruch, lecturer in cybernetics at the University of Bradford.

Automation is the introduction of automatic equipment, often in manufacturing processes. We’ve all seen the introduction of automation in our lives, whether it be a dishwasher to clean your plates for you, or self-service checkout machines that take your money and even thank you for using them. But where will this automation end? Is it an improvement or just an inevitability?

 

Arguments for – more automation is for the better:

Dull, dirty, dangerous – why should people put up with jobs like these? Dr. Kevin MacNish argued that automation would free humans from mundane tasks, jobs that are dirty and those which put people’s lives in danger. Instead, argued Dr. John Baruch people would be free to pursue jobs in creativity, the arts and innovation, whilst robots clean your house, load your dishwashers and cook healthy meals for you at the end of the day. A major fear on this topic is that robots will ‘steal our jobs’, but Kevin highlighted that Deloitte found in a study that there was a net increase in employment as a result of automation since 1980. People can retrain – in 1901 there were 200,000 people employed in washing clothes, whereas now there are just 35,000. More people are now able to pursue other careers.

Drones delivering your amazon parcel won’t just reduce delivery costs and mean you can get your DVDs earlier –Kevin pointed out that imagine drones delivering life-saving medicine. In the Netherlands, 80% of people who have a heart-attack die, because it takes more than 10 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Imagine if a drone could deliver a defibrillator, imagine how many lives could be saved.

On the issue of road safety, John invited us to imagine a robot driving your car. Robots won’t drink and drive. Robots won’t get tired. In constrast, Kevin reminded us that 38,000 people have died in car incidents in 14 years in Britain – that’s roughly 3,000 people per year. Those people, and their friends, and their families would surely think a safer road system would be for the better. And we’re fortunate to live in one of the best countries for road safety.  Perhaps putting a safer, automation system is not just for the better – perhaps it is our moral duty to do so.

 

Against  arguments - more automation is not for the better:

Dr. Jordan Boyle stated  that more automation means that people will lose their current jobs. And not everyone who does will be able to retrain -  not everyone can learn to programme robots. Unemployment is a terrible thing, poverty is a terrible thing, and those who don’t have work would be grateful for a dull or a dirty job. And additionally - where would this magical retraining come from?

Dr. Helen Morley pursued this further and asked us to consider who is losing their jobs and who would be gaining them. Automation is an issue of social inequality. Not only would an automation revolution put primarily medium-skilled workers out of work, it puts vulnerable people at risk. The elderly for whom it’s difficult to keep updated with technology may find themselves in shops, unable to find a person to ask for help. Not only this but we would lose casual interaction – for some people, a conversation at the checkout may be the only social interaction they have all day. Automation would mean we lose a communication. Inevitably, automation would not benefit society equally, with the vulnerable and those currently holding low-skilled jobs taking the hit, without the benefits being given back to the same group.

We want a goldilocks level of automation, Helen argued. Just because the automation revolution might be inevitable doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. We don’t want to make it easier for terrorists or fascist dictators to commit genocide, so we always need to be consider who is losing and who is gaining.

At the beginning of the debate, most of the audience voted that more automation was for the better. By the end however, the ‘nobots’ had swayed about a quarter of the audience. But even if the audience were opposed to more automation, John warned us that we’re on the verge of the 4th industrial revolution – robotics and automation are becoming increasingly important in our lives and he argued that Britain needs to embrace this and be at the forefront, ensure we benefit from the start, or risk getting left behind.

Find the nearest Future Debate near you

Come to the flagship Future Debate in London during British Science Week