Robots and Jobs – Discussion


Peter: Whenever I give a talk somewhere to a general audience about robots, somebody always asks me the question about jobs; won’t robots take our jobs away? And the argument I usually make is 'yeah, they're going to take some jobs away and that's uncomfortable, but the alternative is if we don't have robots working in factories, the likelihood is we will lose the industry entirely.'

So we're making a bit of a trade. We're going to keep the industry, for instance, we're going to keep manufacturing automobiles in a high labor cost country and it's going to employ some people and it's going to employ some taxes and there's going to be a big knock on economic benefit, but yeah, absolutely, it will have some impact on jobs.

More recently, there's been quite a bit written about the so-called new machine age where a whole raft the jobs, not necessarily manual labor jobs, a lot of so-called knowledge worker jobs will perhaps disappear, like interpreting X-rays and writing financial reports. Now these are jobs now that are on the line.

There's a once upon a time very famous philosopher, Voltaire, talked about the virtues of work and many of us define ourselves or our identity, our self-esteem, it’s all wrapped up in work. So this seems to me perhaps the most exquisitely complex of all the topics that we've talked about today.

What does ethics say about this?

Doug: Our identity is locked up in what we do often for most of us. And our fundamental moral philosophy that guides most of us comes out of John Locke's theory of labor. John Locke's theory of labor is the foundation to the rights to property. And that in itself set up the property rights basis of the American Constitution.

So the rights to property and how we define ourselves and how we define our culture is locked up in what we do. And it's entrenched in terms of liberal democracy, the labor theory, and utilitarianism; all three of those philosophical perspectives guide us in terms of how we set our values.

Now with respect to machines replacing humans, you'll be very familiar with the Luddite revolution.

Peter: Absolutely.

Doug: During the early industrial revolution.

Peter: The guys with big hammers.

Doug: Yep. They went in and they smashed all the cotton mills. I think it's about 1790. They went in there and just went to town on the cotton mills because they're afraid, and they were quite right in this, that the cotton mills are going to replace their jobs. And they did.

Of course, the Luddites were all duly hanged very quickly. Victorian rules for misconduct were some of the most severe in the history in the world but thank heavens we don't have so many hard laws anymore.

But the Luddites had a justified position. However, that's been with us since machines been with us, that fear. That innate fear that we're going to lose not only our jobs, but our identity and who we are.

Peter: And since industrialisation here, so many jobs have been created and then disappeared.

Doug: Correct. It seems to ebb and flow. We're getting more and more people in the labor market. Australia in the last 50 years has doubled in population. We have more people working. 

So I might be a little ignorant on this, but from what I can see is that we adapt. It's one of the most interesting things about the human being, is our ability to adapt and to change. And we seem to be doing that.

And so, this innate fear of losing our jobs to machines seems to be unfounded. However, I understand it. In terms of ethics, really, it's not an ethical position that you can take. I guess individuals need to have the autonomy to choose and to be able to work and to be able to live in a free environment and to have access to those resources, so that's very important ethically.

But the argument that machines are going to take that away, I've seen some evidence of it recently with the closure of the Holden facilities in South Australia, but bottom line is - now we're talking about submarines, I think, yesterday on the news?

Peter: Yep.

Doug: And integrating maybe more work back into Australia and send it off, putting it into Japan for re-designing and rebuilding submarines back in Australia. So, it ebbs and flows.

Peter: So in the case of an individual, if they don't have a job, the ethical consideration here is whether we impinge on their autonomy.

Doug: Yes, correct. And there are basic right to have a fulfilled life in this culture.

Peter: But in our culture a fulfilled life usually includes a job.

Doug: Well, it includes the right to work and the right to have access to work and resources. Yes, it does.

Peter: So we could put a roof over people's heads, we can make sure that they're not hungry and so they would be in some sense looked after, comfortable, but they may not have the option of a job.

Doug: Yeah. I think the bigger question is, are machines taking away jobs? In other words, if we look at…

Peter: In an overall sense.

Doug: Yeah.

Peter: Yes, they're going to take away some but then other jobs are going to come.

Doug: And other jobs will be created with the machines, so there seems to be a balance there. And as always, there's a balance, and I think that there's a cohesion in terms of the creation of jobs and the loss of jobs that seems to be working on. I don't have stats on that but that would be an interesting…

Peter: I mean, it's the way it's gone for hundred years or more.

Doug: Absolutely, yeah.

Peter: The issue is whether we're going to some kind of tipping point where suddenly that no longer holds, and there is some books that say that that's case, but I don't think we- I'm not sure anyone can make a hybrid hard or firm prediction about that.

Doug: Yeah, so I don't have an answer to that because if it's the case, let's project…

Peter: Okay.

Doug: If it's the case, say, in 100 years, that machines have really pretty much replaced you and me.

Peter: Yup.

Doug: We don't need professors anymore, we've got an android there that forgot more about ethics than Doug Baker will ever know, and we've got another one over here that, well, he's got Peter Corke's brain programmed into him and he's got about three more other brains programmed into him and he can teach everything there is about robotics.

So the question then is this, what are guys like you and me do? We'll probably be doing something but I'm not sure what. And the question then is if we have the jobs taken over by machines, what do humans do? Do we get value for that or maybe we retire at the age of 30, or maybe we don't work? I don't know.

Peter: Which is the other thing that I think is we grow up. We talked about that the people would be retiring earlier and all this, and that didn't happen either.

Doug: No.

Peter: The retirement age is going up.

Doug: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely, it is going up. I don't know what that's about.

Peter: No, but I think it's a bad idea.

Doug: That's true. But I think that, in terms of ethics, the taking away of jobs, I think we need to look at the bigger picture and the balance of what's created and what's taken away before we can make that argument. But it really isn't an argument for ethics. It can be an argument for autonomy but overall, I don't see that's an ethical issue. Not at all.


There is no code in this lesson.

Robots have an impact on jobs. We have discussed the balance that occurs when some jobs disappear and new jobs appear. However, Doug and I consider whether there is an ethical stance to be taken when individuals lose their jobs.

Professor Peter Corke

Professor of Robotic Vision at QUT and Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV). Peter is also a Fellow of the IEEE, a senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and on the editorial board of several robotics research journals.

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