The business ethics of automation and human obsolescence – What do we owe the world and future generations?
“Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.” – Milton Friedman
Income disparity has become an issue of note and consequence in the US and much of the developed world. But let’s be clear; middle and working class families are not worse off now than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. They are worse off relative to the overall prosperity existent within the economy. These are two distinctly different scenarios and we should care about absolute living standards not relative ones. Every region of the world – save those that have been struck with significant natural disasters, war, or disease – are better off now than they ever have been. This is all due to one factor that is infinitely more important than fiscal, monetary, or international policy: innovation. While a wave of populism sweeps the world and threatens this innovation in the name of protectionism, to stand in the way of this innovation is to cumulatively damage society for generations to come.
Automation and the Digital Revolution
The steam engine is arguably the single most impactful invention in human history to date. It was the catalyst for the industrial revolution, a revolution that was fraught with uproar and objection from those whose jobs would be replaced by machines. Those who opposed industrialization were reasonably effective in slowing it, and thus their children were unable to reap the full prosperity of its advances. However, they did not stop it; instead this period resulted in the first ever demonstration of exponential improvement in quality of life in the history of humanity.
And now, barely 200 years later, we are on the cusp of another revolution in productivity due to two equally – if not more – impactful inventions that will raise living standards for all, regardless of the disparity of the share between classes. These are the emergence of a globally connected digital network and artificial intelligence. Coupled with the exponential rate of performance and lower cost of technological hardware per Moore’s Law, these two factors will bring about an era that will make all progress that came before appear minute. All of us are in the early days of the most significant period in human advancement.
What AI and automation can eventually achieve is large scale productivity without human intervention. This means that humans could theoretically become purely consumers and, because of extremely low costs of production due to the removal of human labor, consumption for most products and services could be enjoyed by all. Theoretically at least, this would remove much of the desirability of monetary wealth and indeed the inequality it creates as well. We are seeing more evidence of this every day, with prime examples being Wikipedia and Youtube respectively offering for free the real time summary of human knowledge and 300 new hours of video entertainment every minute. Whilst this notion may appear utopian and whilst it is isolated from broader macro considerations, it does highlight the fundamental premise; to bring about a world of plenty and inequality, mankind should prioritize innovation above all else, including employment rates and income disparity.
Why Capitalism Matters
If innovation is the life blood of human prosperity, then, until proven otherwise, capitalism is the heart. Innovation is reliant on sufficient incentivization, and the only proven incentive structure that has fueled large scale innovation is capitalism. Yes, it can be tweaked and optimized based on cultural and sociological considerations, but there are dangers of overhauling an economic system that is an accomplished mechanism for innovation.
The Inhibitors of Progress
“You never would have come here unless you believed you were going to save them. Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier. We can care deeply – selflessly – about those we know, but that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight.” – Dr. Mann, Interstellar
Yes, I just quoted a sci-fi film but it so crisply captures that innate characteristic of humans to only consider that which is within our peripheral vision. We often need to visualize the circumstances of others, and the internet has gone a long way to enlightening those in the developed world of the plights that exist elsewhere. That said, the nationalism that has travelled west from Eastern Europe, through the UK and most recently within the US, shows us the tribalism still trumps all else. Similarly, people tend to view the world within a snapshot of time; nothing exemplifies this more than the blasé efforts to combat climate change. But future generations matter, probably more than our generations does, if only because there will be so many more of them.
Labor unions first formed in the mid-19th century in response to the industrial revolution. They and their ideological successors are at the forefront of the battle against automation, and will undoubtedly slow the adoption of valuable technological advancements. The speed of innovation will not be the prevailing bottleneck of optimal human prosperity, it will be those of us who fight against it.
Often proponents of on-shoring jobs do not consider that these are jobs that will be automated anyway, and the technology is not far away in most cases. In fact, by artificially maintaining low-skilled jobs in a nation that is constantly generating productive innovations that create value and therefore wealth, those individuals are essentially perpetuating income disparity. The quicker obsolete workers are removed from low value-add jobs, the quicker they can reskill and add value elsewhere in the economy. Ideally, we could even import the norm found in eastern countries of celebrating education and challenging youths to be contributors in the knowledge economy.
Why it Matters to Us
If you are looking for an argument justifying the continuing concentration of the elites, this is anything but. In fact, my point is quite the opposite. Capitalism is important, automation and technological advancement are important, but most fundamentally people are important. This applies to those now and in the future. We are on course – if proper leadership is demonstrated in the years to come – to ensure that all people can prosper. Income inequality is not primarily a product of greed or political structures (although they do have a material impact), it is a product of a lag between innovation and adoption. Legacy jobs from an era when they had utility still exist during the digital revolution; this will inevitably result in disparity. The best way to combat this is to ensure that the next generation is collectively propelled towards the knowledge economy.
We all have the potential to be leaders in the most important period of human history. Our decisions will have a huge bearing on humanity long into the future. The first thing we must do is be unafraid of change. The purported purpose of human life will be redefined dramatically over the coming years. But purpose can extend beyond a job or functional contribution. Technological advancements give opportunities for human-beings to go beyond functionality. It allows us to be creative and pursue our passions, and in a world where technology drives productivity, whether we contribute to GDP or not won’t matter much. The world’s preeminent neuroscientists today have little understanding of the potential of the human mind. As the latest machine revolution occurs, so too will the trajectory of our evolution. To condemn artificial intelligence and automation is to belittle the incredible potential of people. Finding new uses for our time is a much more palatable thought than wondering how many of us will survive.
“The Gross National Product does not include the beauty of our poetry or the intelligence of our public debate. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Robert F. Kennedy
What should we do? Advocate for education, for a knowledge economy, for incubators, and above all we should be catalysts for innovation and stand up to those who attempt to repel it. Our response won’t define this generation, it will define all of them to come.
Anton McGonnell (HBS ’18) is from Ireland and has spent his career to date in health tech and enterprise tech and has contributed to innovation policy in Northern Ireland. He is passionate about artificial intelligence and its application in the future. He plans to found a tech company after HBS and make trillions. He also wants to make Belfast the new startup epicenter of Europe.