Sustainability and Ethics within Automation Research

The following essay was written as part of a course I took up. The course was titled “Sustainable Development: Values, Technology in Society, and the Researcher”. It broadly gave an overview on the ethical and sustainable framework that has been developed over the last few years and the debates present within. The participants to the course came from different research fields and hence the course too was kept as broad as possible. I can be certain that the following essay is not completely accurate and only presents my views and reflections that were a result of this 3 day course.

My research contributes towards building the next generation of highly automated manufacturing plants. These manufacturing plants are completely automated in which robots, conveyors, Automated guided vehicles, and other tools work together controlled by intelligent software that ensures safe operation of the devices and its surroundings. My work within this framework focuses on building software tools that help during the preparation and planing phase of building these manufacturing plants. In order to do so, a virtual environment is used to first build and test the manufacturing plant much before it is physically built. In this essay I provide an insight into the sustainability aspects of my research and also discuss the issue of automation.

My research and sustainability

From a sustainable and ethical perspective, there are couple of view points that need to be looked at. My specific work helps build correct-by-design systems. In doing so, the company responsible for setting up the manufacturing plant saves resources and time. Virtual commissioning at an early stage reduces building of unwanted systems as a trial. This saves a significant amount of capital and can help towards the maintenance of the economic dimension of sustainability. ‘Capital’ includes the monetary requirements from the companies as well as the natural resources and other man made capital required to start a manufacturing system.

In the long run, my research will help industries build a single manufacturing plant that is capable of producing all the different variants of the product. Today, customers have a variety of different options while choosing a product. For example, in a car, the customer can choose to have one of 4-5 different engines; a body with or without the sunroof, and so on. These different options are called variants. Making a manufacturing plant capable of producing all the variants is a herculean task. It is often the case that there exist several manufacturing plants to cater to the different variants. Such an approach is highly unsustainable as it requires building several manufacturing plants. My work will contribute to the current manufacturing design process making it possible for manufacturing companies to automatically design plants that can handle the different variants. Keeping man-made capital to a bare minimum.

From a more broader perspective, highly automated manufacturing systems can help provide a more sustainable approach to develop the product. The automated systems are optimized for high efficiency and accuracy. That is, such systems optimize or reduce the energy consumed by the robots during manufacturing. This would reduce the heat and minimize the gasses produced. Furthermore, the manufacturing systems of the future will be accurate and almost error free. The products will be error free and hence the need to discard them will not arise. All in all, the manufacturing systems of the future will make the manufacturing process more sustainable as the resulting products are built with minimal raw material.

Ofcourse, there can be arguments raised on the actual nature of the production or the product itself, and the need for development or mass production of the products, but that is not the point of discussion here. Just to elaborate, the whole industry of mass production can mainly be justified through the anthropocentric view. The products produced mainly enhance human pleasure and improve the lifestyle. However, they are an important industry the sustains scientific progress. These industries cannot be justified from a strong substitutability perspective. The products developed are, almost always, transformed from natural resources which can never be replaced. From a weak substitutability perspective the arguments are a bit more shallow. There is a certain limit upto which these manufactured products are sustainable, and this requires further study on a per product basis. For example, cars are a required product. But how many cars? One per person? One for each household? Or more towards the concept of car pooling per locality? These limits need to be discussed from a weak substitutability perspective.

Making it possible to create a virtual simulation of manufacturing plants is computationally expensive. Powerful computers are required to make this simulations a reality. This requires building of new computers and also large amounts of electricity. It is hard to quantify if these requirements will make the benefits gained by virtual simulations unsustainable.

Personally, I believe my research work to have a positive impact on sustainability. However this impact is not sufficient. Mainly from a biocentric point of view having large scale production systems itself is unsustainable, specifically with the rapid changes in the product lifecycle as we see today. In this I believe we need a shift in our lifestyle. While political actions can help it is at the individual level the real change can happen. Since, at the end of the day, it is the individuals that are the consumers. The more we(individuals) lean more towards sufficiency the faster this change would come.

Automation from an ethical perspective

Here I shift my focus towards another very important change that is coming: Automation. Being at the forefont of technology that enables automation, I believe it is the responsibility of every person involved to reflect on how automation will impact our future.

The rise of automation in manufacturing systems can result is loss of jobs, or at least change the socio-economic dynamic in our present society; this is an ethical challenge we face. There is no doubt that automation will be the norm in the next few decades. Just as tractors made animal driven farming a thing of the past, robots and software will do the same to blue-collar jobs. One major question that comes up here is: is it ethical to replace humans with robots? and, does doing so rob the person of his livelihood?

The answer to this question of replacing humans with robots will have a profound social and economic impact. A utilitarian might argue that doing so will increase the “sadness” as many people will lose their jobs and livelihood, while only serving the powerful. But, questions can be raised on the treatment and working conditions of these employees today. More often than not, these employees are unfairly treated by the employers, and the class divide between the two might be more unjust and unethical.

Coming from a more deontological perspective–with values such as justice, equality and freedom–automation presents an opportunity to create a society where every human is treated equally. Within this framework it can be argued that the humans must be treated justly(in relation to their superiors) when replaced with robots. Additionally, since we believe that humans have a dignity, rights, and freedoms, the transition towards automation should be done such that these values are upheld and never violated.

Personally, I see this trend of automation as an opportunity to get rid of the classes. In my view, it the responsibility of the government to setup a framework within which all citizens are provided with a basic means of livelihood. Secondly, It is the responsibility of the company and researchers to setup pedagogic activities that will help train the employees to take up different tasks within the automated framework. It is a myth that automation will kill jobs, automation will merely abstract away the low level jobs into something more high level.

The next few years will define how we choose to use automation. The main lock-in mechanism here relates to the capitalistic outlook of companies. As long as these companies that gain monetary benefit from automation are kept in check and not given sufficient power to influence legislation researchers and stakeholders can drive us into the new era of automation with a focus towards equality , justice and freedom for all humans. In order for this to be a realty we need a radical change in our current outlook of workforce labor. Governments and institutions need to work together with researchers to draft legislation that is fair to all humans present and in the future. There is no doubt technology will push for a change in attitude, but it has to equally be done with a change of lifestyle and attitude by all stakeholders.

My role as a researcher

I see my role as more of a pure scientist when it comes to sustainability. There are few aspects that I, in my specific research, can influence towards sustainability.

From an automation perspective, I see myself as somewhere between an issue advocate and a honest broker. I have a clear objective when it comes to how society needs to grow to make good use of automation and in this I lean more towards an issue advocate. When it comes to actual implementation of ideas and finding solutions to the problems automation will cause in our current social structure I see myself as an honest broker.

As I have mentioned previously, a huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of researchers that make automation a reality. This responsibility has to do with how automation will be used, how replacing low skilled jobs needs to be handled, to provide counter checks to ensure trustworthy execution of automation technologies to name a few. More importantly, a large portion of this responsibility lies towards creating awareness about automation to the general public. This includes providing a foundation that will improve human-automation collaboration rather than inducing a fear about automation. My belief is, this is a slow reform that needs to happen from both political ends and individual ends.