The ethics of automation

Automation is often looked at from a technical perspective, but an ethical and socioeconomic point of view is also important.

By Frank Lamb, Automation Primer June 24, 2016

An article from a while back focused on the advantages and disadvantages of automation listed some of the "good" and "bad" things associated with automation, particularly with manufacturing.

What is interesting about the comments is that most of them focused on the ethical or societal aspects of the question, rather than benefits and liabilities. As an engineer, it’s easy to look at the problem from a technical standpoint. This time, I’m going to try and look at it from a socioeconomic view.

Imagine a village with a population of a thousand or so working adults. This village has families, children, people who are too old or too handicapped to work. The village is far away from any other villages so they need to produce most of what they use and eat; trade is very sparse and goods are difficult to obtain from "outside." Resources are plentiful, the village is reasonably prosperous, and everyone is well-fed and very busy.

Joe owns a machine shop. He spends a lot of his time making odds and ends for different craftsmen and households in the village. Along with Bob, who repairs appliances and farm equipment and Steve, who takes care of electrical issues around the village, they make up most of the technical capabilities in town.

Bob’s wife Mary is a weaver and makes cloth and fabrics from wool and cotton grown in the area. Because she is the only one that does this is town, her services are highly sought after and fabrics are quite expensive. She asks Bob if he and his friends can make something that would allow her to make fabrics faster. A couple of months go by and Bob brings home a mechanism that takes the raw materials in at one end and spits cloth out the other.

Mary is taken aback; this is not exactly what she was thinking of, but it certainly makes cloth faster and more consistently than she can. After six months, she finds that she spends most of the day feeding raw materials in one end of the machine and folding the material that comes out the other end. She gets some help from some of the other wives on her street, and production increases tenfold.

A year later, there is a lot more cloth available for some of the other local people who use it to make clothing and furnishings, and Mary discovers that she can’t charge what she used to for her fabrics. She also finds that she no longer makes cloth as an artisan, but instead operates the machine and takes care of the business. She complains to Bob that this is not really what she wanted. She also isn’t making more money than she used to because she is paying for people, more space, machine repairs and whatnot.

Joe is quite bright, and over time he develops machines that harvest the fields, package and can products, and even build other machines. He and his friends enjoy doing this for the work’s sake. As a result, they are constantly coming up with new gadgets and widgets for the village. They also start making more money, but people start taking a lot of this for granted over time and the cost of gadgets, widgets, and machinery starts coming down.

Fast forward twenty years and the village is still prosperous, but the mayor’s brother owns several of the local businesses and people like Joe and Mary now work for him. He has told Mary that in order to make the business even more prosperous, she will have to lay off Sarah and Michelle; besides, there are now additional machines that fold and package the fabrics and even keep track of sales.

Agriculture and other food production such as meat, egg and milk production has also been automated, so whereas 50% of the village used to be involved in food production; now it’s 20%. Sarah, Michelle, and many of the people displaced in food production now work in local restaurants, teach school, and repair machinery.

Many of the artisans have found that rather than doing things by hand, they are now operating machines. Sometimes they learn to repair their own equipment and enjoy the business aspect, but over time they discover that it is easier to just go work for the mayor’s brother, who now owns much of the production in town.

This is a very simplistic view of technology and economics, but in the past hundred years we have gone from a highly agricultural economy, to a manufacturing and industrial economy, to a largely service economy. Food production [now] is largely automated and far fewer people work in farming. Many processes can’t be economically automated, so there are a lot of tasks that are still performed by human operators. At the same time, I have been in a few plants where there is literally no one on the plant floor unless a machine needs maintenance.

Frank Lamb is the founder of Automation Consulting Services Inc. This article originally appeared on the Automation Primer blog. Automation Primer is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

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