Robotisation and the Future of Work
The debate on the impact of robotisation on the future of work is often polarized between those who foresee limitless opportunities and those who predict massive displacement of jobs. While keeping a critical distance from unjustifiable hypes and fears on the technological impact on the labour market, the phenomenon of “robotisation/digitalization of work” needs moral guidance in order to maximize safety, safeguard the common good, protect the rights of workers, fit in with social norms and encourage public trust. The central ethical concerns of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Pillar of Social Rights on human dignity, autonomy, social justice and solidarity seem to offer an adequate moral horizon for evaluating the emerging challenges and far-reaching impact of robotisation on the future of work.
The substitution of dangerous or tedious work by technology is ethically valuable and desirable since human beings could have more opportunities for self-realisation, societal contribution and leisure. However, the replacement of human work by machines is at the same time a threat to human dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment” (Article 23). Everyone has a fundamental need to work since it is a means for self-development and at the same time an opportunity to transform the environment, to contribute to society and to build relationships with others. Unemployment due to autonomous robotics is a threat to human dignity since decent work is necessary for human self-fulfilment and security, as well as for the peaceful progress of society. If there is no work, there is no human dignity.
Whereas robotisation is designed to enhance our personal autonomy and capacities (both cognitive and physical), it can also increase our vulnerability and decrease our freedom. Robotisation can, in some specific areas, substitute our decision-making process, influence our life-style and control our course of action. This phenomenon of ‘technological paternalism’, ‘robotic/digital addiction’ or ‘technological delegation’ is one of the worrying causes, in the near future, of dependence on robots in everyday life, in the workplace and beyond. Humans manifest autonomy through critical awareness and responsible decisions. When robotics decrease one’s cognitive ability and dilute responsibility, human dignity is seriously compromised due to the loss of one’s power of self-determination.
Work and employment are a fundamental means of economic security, personal fulfilment and social inclusion. Justice is one of the main values at stake since unemployment due to robotics is intrinsically a form of inequality. The technologisation of work is creating new categories of vulnerable human beings (‘technological vulnerability’) due to their digital illiteracy and exclusion from workplace. The ‘technological divide’ needs to be addressed by educational programmes to re-skill and retrain workers to empower them with digital skills to find dignified work in a robotic age. Alternative access to jobs – at least temporarily – needs to be guaranteed to safeguard inclusiveness in the labour market, thereby defending workers from discrimination.
In an age of automation in employment, one of the main expression of solidarity is social security. There is an emerging ethical need for social-economical protection of the particularly vulnerable people as a result of uncertainty, flexibility and fluidity of work. The substantial loss of existing paid jobs will most probably result in a lack of sources of income and financial means for a sustainable system of social welfare. Moreover, the gap between the rich and the poor will be widened because less people will be directly involved economically and socially in a more efficient and more effective value-creation process. The pressure upon the welfare state and the systems of social protection/security that have benefited from work until now is a great concern that needs to be addressed. Social and solidarity economy promotes the creation and preservation of decent work by providing quality and stable jobs and by integrating disadvantaged workers in the labour market.
Let us hope that the changing patterns of employment through automation and robotics will truly benefit the well-being of both present and future generations.
Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Malta and Member of the European Group of Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE)
EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.