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Automation and the ethics of work

Automation and the ethics of work

For a working group I give at the Radboud University, students were asked to read “The Coders Programming Themselves Out of a Job”. This article discusses the ethical considerations of people automating their own jobs, either partly or completely. What are these considerations, and how do they relate to common work ethic?

On the one hand, these people fulfill their job description to perfection through the scripts they wrote. One could applaud this clever increase in efficiency and the accompanying consistent performance. Moreover, freed up time can of course be well-spent, whether it is on family life or on learning new professional skills (that might also be valuable for your employer in the end!). On the other hand, as these people literally program themselves out of a job, they end up spending their time freely on non-work related activities while being on a payroll, sometimes for years on end. The question then is whether they are cheating, and deceiving their employer? And should they notify your employer of the fact that they are no longer spending time on your job? Such disclosure is not without risk. Many contracts treat everything developed under company time as their intellectual property, so after disclosure of the automation of your own job a company might not only claim the script as theirs, but might also dissolve your job and potentially those of your peers as well.

We could say that these clever programmers participate in a form of grassroots automation that emerges bottom-up rather than being issued top-down by some executive in a reorganization. This creates a slightly different set of issues than the more straightforward story of “my job got replaced by a machine”. The difference is that in the latter case the process of automation is publicly evangelized, whereas what makes the case of self-automation poignant is the ethical question of disclosure: Should I tell others, or my employer? And should I share my scripts? And why, or why not? These considerations concerning work automation only become more relevant as AI technologies become more widely available.

Another relevant aspect is that in the case of automation across the board, the beneficiary is usually the employer, whereas in this mode of grassroots self-automation, it is the employee that reaps the benefits. But if these clever employees get the job done more efficiently, why then do people often keep their self-automation silent, and feel that somehow what they are doing is ethically wrong or ambiguous at the least? The article states:

Even if a program impeccably performs their job, many feel that automation for one’s own benefit is wrong. That human labor is inherently virtuous — and that employees should always maximize productivity for their employers — is more deeply coded into American work culture than any automation script could be.

This resonates deeply with me, as I too am one of those people that attributes a lot of value to work. And many people in my environment are plagued by a constant sense of guilt: have we worked enough, shouldn’t we work more?

Through above-mentioned article, I came across the essay “In Praise of Idleness” of Bertrand Russell, written in 1932, but even more relevant today I would say. The sermon of technological automation is that the same amount of work can be done in let’s say half the time, and that this should lead to an increase in wealth and happiness for everyone. But instead of everyone then working half working days, a part of the population (those on the “right side” of automation) only seem to make longer days, whereas others become unemployed and see their life quality plunging (those made “redundant” by automation). If automation only contributes to the good of employers, then technology will only increase social divides along new lines, between “normal” workers and the those that are tech-savvy.

In that context, consider how relevant these words from 1932 sound:

If at the end of the War the scientific organization which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work had been preserved, and the hours of work had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that, the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry. This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose.


Modern technic has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

What we should then think about is how technology and automation can increase the quality of life in a distributed and democratic manner. From this perspective, we can thus understand the hesitance to disclose self-automation towards one’s employer due to two reasons:

  1. In the common work ethic, your work is not simply valued by its results, but by your industrious efforts. If your work is automated, despite producing exactly the same results, we do not call it work and consequently you should not receive the same compensation.
  2. Disclosing your automation scripts likely does not come to the benefit of the employee, but instead to that of the employer and stakeholders of the company. In that sense, automation often fails to promote well-being for workers, which is (and should be) one of its main promises.

What is cool about the grassroots approach of self-automation is that it makes technology follow through on its promises to allow shorter working days and more happiness, e.g. by having a half working day with more time to spend with your family. How can we be against that? And why do many people, including me, associate this reduction of work with a loss of status and ambition? Much to think about. The main challenge for the future, and I think one that is extremely relevant in our contemporary society, is to distribute these advantages amongst peers in such a way that it comes to the benefit of all by taking a load of our shoulders.

Or in the words of Russel:

a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

N.B. The question the students had to answer was: a) In what ways could you automate your work as a student, and b) would you feel ethically obliged to disclose this automation to your study program? I had a lot of fun grading their work.