typical workweek does not seem to be
getting shorter or less demanding in
the digital age.
The U.S. military is enjoying the
benefits of robots since they can complete “dull, dirty, or dangerous” tasks,
and their labor is very useful in the civilian realm as well. Yet automation
can eliminate job opportunities and
usually causes the demographics of the
work force to be significantly altered in
a relatively short amount of time. Employers find robots to be rather enticing since they do not receive benefits or
request vacation time. Through the design choices they make, scientists and
engineers play a key role in determining the kinds of employment practices
that can and will transpire.
If categories of jobs do indeed vanish as
a result of robots, will the relevant skills
of displaced workers be transferred to
another application or will those skills
be rendered obsolete? This concern
is not unique to robots. But what may
be a new variation now is that the jobs
available to humans may be drastically
reduced as computers, the Internet,
and robots replace humans in employ-
ment sectors that used to be thought of
as immune to automation. At present, it
is fairly difficult for people to find work
that is not connected in some way to
these technologies. This development
might not be conducive to the flourish-
ing of each person’s respective talents,
and robots are likely to exacerbate this
situation. Also, the type of skills that will
be in demand if and when the robotic
age takes hold might be obvious in some
ways but not so apparent in others.a
different task when we believe (perhaps
falsely) that we can trust someone or
something else to deal with the task at
hand.b Returning to the issue of health
care, will nursing home staff be less at-
tentive if a robotic assistant is placed in
a resident’s room? The more reliable we
think automated systems are, the more
likely it is our attention will stray. What
complicates matters is that this type
of behavioral shift might not be con-
sciously detected. Hence, it would be
wise to temper the confidence that us-
ers place in robots and other automated
systems, especially when people could
be significantly harmed. This could be
accomplished in part by ensuring that
risks are transparently presented to
users. To that end, scientists and engi-
neers should reflect on their ethical re-
sponsibilities to communicate with the
public about a robot’s capabilities and
limitations, and not merely leave it to
marketers, sales departments, and oth-
ers to fill this role.
Ethical concerns about integrating robots into the workplace are becoming
increasingly pronounced. Again, the intention here is not to stop innovation.
Rather, the hope is to inform the design
process. Ideally, the robotics community will select design pathways that
mitigate the associated concerns and
thereby enhance the public’s lives.
b Placing too much confidence in technology, often at the expense of other sources of information, seems to be a growing problem with GPS
in automobiles; see for example, Is your GPS
navigator a friend or foe?” The Sydney Morning
Herald, (Jan. 12, 2010); http://www.smh.com.au/
1. Cowan, R.s. More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of
Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The
Microwave. basic books, 1983, 44.
2. joy, b. Why the future doesn’t need us. Wired 8, 4 (Apr.
3. sparrow, R. and sparrow, l. In the hands of
machines? The future of aged care. Minds and
Machines 16, 2 (May 2006), 141–161.
4. Tabuchi, h. In japan, machines for work and play are
idle. The New York Times (july 12, 2009); http://www.
a For example, in Wired for War, P.W. Singer
discusses how cooks might have more job security than military pilots because they can
prepare food in creative ways. In the civilian
realm, he reassures hairstylists by suggesting
their specific abilities may keep them employed; Penguin Press, NY, 2009, 130–132.
as being a surgeon, may start to disappear. A decade ago, Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, famously warned against this. 2 Even if we don’t
share Joy’s apprehension about the future of robotics, we can still appreciate
the perils of trying to replace “uniquely
human” abilities such as critical thinking and intuition.
To illustrate this point, we can look
at the robots being created to assist with
the health care needs of elderly popula-
tions. An outgrowth of this effort is that
it could subtly or perhaps dramatically
change how nursing homes function. In
principle, robots could free up the time
of nursing home staff; for example, a ro-
botic assistant can provide medication
reminders or warnings if a resident is
in danger. Such a robotic counterpart
might enable human workers to be
more caring and productive. However,
nursing homes and other care facili-
ties will be tempted to downsize their
human staff when a robot is “hired”
instead of freeing up human staff to
give more time to residents. 3 Since
many nursing home residents in the
U.S. and elsewhere already do not get
enough care and individualized atten-
tion, this is a very troubling possibility.
Theoretically, an increased emphasis
on in-home care could for example lead
to the creation of other types of jobs
but we should be skeptical about this.
Financial considerations, the drive for
efficiency, and overconfidence in tech-
nology are strong driving forces that can
push humans “out of the loop.”
On a related note, reliance on auto-
mation may exacerbate a common hu-
man tendency to shift our attention to a
Jason Borenstein ( email@example.com) is the director
of Graduate Research ethics Programs in the school of
Public Policy at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA.
The author would like to thank Rachelle hollander, Keith
W. Miller, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful
insights and guidance.
Copyright held by author.