An ethical compass in the automation age

Decisions require deep dive into company core values.

We believe digital labor can be one of the most powerful and valuable methods for companies to change their futures and potentially improve the world in which we live. Nearly two-thirds of senior leaders reported on a recent survey that they are looking at automation and robotics with the specific purpose of reducing their reliance on labor. But making such sweeping decisions with such enormous impact can’t be taken lightly. Decisions on how to use cognitive automation can have lasting effects on your workforce, on communities and on the entire world. They require digging into a company’s deepest core values. This article presents some compelling steps to take and questions to consider that dig into companies’ deepest cultural beliefs when making these tough choices.

Companies worldwide have access to powerful technologies; so powerful it’s critical to weigh multiple scenarios before leaders make choices on how to use them. The adoption of robots and artificial intelligence could improve productivity by 30 percent in some industries.

This and a multitude of numbers already prove the financial and productivity benefits of automation. The non-financial costs are as or more important. We can automate, but should we? How will our decision make the world a better place? For example, if a nation’s largest communications service provider decides to automate everything possible, shaving 40 percent of costs out of their back office – even with added tax expense – they can sell products at lower costs. In five years, their biggest competitor is bankrupt. Governments may step in to discourage or stop this sort of outcome, imposing taxes, fines and competitive legislation. And the equation gets tougher the more nations in which companies operate.

The U.S. government has already published recommended policy responses to automation as a part of the previous administration that encourages educating new workers to enter the workforce, helping workers who lose jobs and combating inequality.

And the new U.S. administration has a tough stance on bringing jobs back to America. To comply, one company can bring home hundreds of jobs from multiple nations, but will they then automate them? And from citizens’ perspectives, more than half of the general population of more than 33,000 people from 28 countries surveyed recently said the pace of change in business and industry is moving too fast, and 54 percent worry about losing their jobs due to automation.

Some theorize unemployment triggered by automation may deeply affect societies, causing former workers to question the value of their lives. According to Tae Wan Kim, assistant professor, Ethics, Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, businesses that follow the view that the “challenge of meaning in life is not the business of business inadvertently or negligently will be a major contributor to an important social and ethical problem in the second machine age. That’s why we recommend augmentation as an alternative mindset for business.”

Company leaders will largely determine where these technologies might take us. Carefully consider the potential impact. The good and the bad. Examine the effect on safety for your employees, vendors and customers that create and use your products and services. Evaluate the impact on the environment, the communities where you do business, as well as the world economy.