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Ethics and automation: What to do when workers are displaced


As companies embrace automation and artificial intelligence, some jobs will be created or enhanced, but many more are likely to go away. What obligation do organizations have to displaced workers in such situations? Is there an ethical way for business leaders to usher their workforces through digital disruption?

Researchers wrestled with those questions recently at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Next conference. Their conclusion: Company leaders need to better understand the negative repercussions of the technologies they adopt and commit to building systems that drive economic growth and social cohesion.

Pramod Khargonekar, vice chancellor for research at University of California, Irvine, and Meera Sampath, associate vice chancellor for research at the State University of New York, presented findings from their paper, “Socially Responsible Automation: A Framework for Shaping the Future.”

The research makes the case that “humans will and should remain critical and central to the workplace of the future, controlling, complementing and augmenting the strengths of technological solutions.” In this scenario, automation, artificial intelligence, and related technologies are tools that should be used to enrich human lives and livelihoods.  (Watch Khargonekar and Sampath's presentation here.)

Aspirational, yes, but how do we get there?

Khargonekar and Sampath explained the four levels of what they call the pyramid of progress:

Level 0: Cost-focused automation. At the lowest level of the pyramid, technology is used solely to gain economic benefits by reducing human labor. These cost-based programs are not only not socially conscious or human-centric, the researchers said, they often fail to deliver and can even be detrimental to business interests.

Level 1: Performance-driven automation. This approach is more cognizant of the role that humans play in the loop. Processes and systems are reengineered to take advantage of automation while still using human skills and capabilities to fill in technological shortfalls.

In Amazon’s warehouses, for example, employees perform tasks that require dexterity and flexibility, such as picking and packing goods, while robots take on routine heavy-lifting tasks like transporting loaded bins.

While such systems move beyond cost efficiencies, they typically are still driven by business metrics that don’t take into account larger implications of the workforce, nor the societal costs and benefits of automation.

Level 2: Worker-centered automation. At this level, the business goal is not just performance optimization, but worker development and enrichment. In these systems, the goal of automation is not to sideline people or replace them with machines, but to encourage new forms of human-machine interaction that augment human capabilities.

On Toyota’s manufacturing lines, workers manually produce goods at first, innovating and simplifying processes as they go, with machines taking over only after the process has been perfected.

While such approaches are workforce-empowering, strategies and choices are still viewed from the point of view of the organization, rather than in the context of a broader business-society ecosystem, the researchers write.

Level 3: Socially responsible automation. At the top of the pyramid, automation is deployed to produce more and better jobs for humans, driving economic growth while also promoting societal well-being. Attaining such a lofty goal requires “explicit, active interventions,” the authors write — that is, business leaders must commit to proactively identifying new revenue streams and job-enabling growth as they roll out and refine automation.

One example is Baltimore-based Marlin Steel, once known as the “king of bagel baskets.” Small business manufacturing is a segment where workers are particularly hard hit when automation is introduced, but Marlin Steel was able to buck that trend, Sampath explained.

Faced with declining demand for its products and rising competition, the company invested in robotics and automation, reengineered its production processes, enhanced its product line with highly engineered custom products, and expanded its client base — all by equipping its employees with the skills and training they needed to operate in its new, technology-driven workplace.

Giving workers a say — even in their own layoffs

If that’s the vision of socially responsible automation, the reality is less rosy, Khargonekar and Sampath conceded — at least in the short term.

When a moderator asked if most companies weren’t “stuck at the bottom row of the pyramid,” Sampath replied, “I really would say so. Today, industry focuses predominantly at the bottom-most level, cost savings, or perhaps the one level after that, which is performance-focused. So predominantly, we are still at the very bottom.”

That means that automation is likely to lead to layoffs; but even then, there’s a right way and wrong way to handle the process.

Susan Winterberg, a fellow in the Technology and Public Purpose Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, cited her case study about Nokia Corp., written with Harvard Business School professor Susan Sucher. (Watch Winterberg's presentation here.)

The Finnish telecommunications giant had a tough time in recent years navigating the consumer electronics marketplace. In 2008, Nokia made the decision to close a mobile assembly plant in Bochum, Germany, despite having just posted record profit for the year. Gates to the factory were locked, and workers arriving for the day were redirected to a local arena where they were told their plant was not cost-effective and their jobs were moving overseas.

An ensuing round of public protests and boycott campaigns cost Nokia money, lost it customers, and damaged its brand worldwide, Winterberg said. Which is why the company took a different tack in 2011 when competition from the iPhone and Android forced it to restructure its mobile phone division.

The decision was made to close down eight research and development centers and two assembly plants and downsize five other assembly and manufacturing plants worldwide. In total, 1,800 people were scheduled to lose their jobs across 13 countries.

This time, Winterberg said, the company pledged to:

  • Accept its responsibility as a driver of local economies.
  • Take an active role in supporting employees, notifying workers months in advance of closures and involving impacted employees in the design and operation of support programs.
  • Communicate openly with all stakeholders, including employees, unions, governments, and local entities, even when Nokia itself did not yet have all the answers.

As part of its Nokia Bridge program, employees could find another job at Nokia, take advantage of training opportunities to learn a new skill, or apply for grants to pursue a different career path entirely. The firm set up career fairs for employees, even inviting their competitors in local markets.

Additionally, Nokia created an incubator program that helped employees leverage intellectual property it no longer needed into new business ventures — a move that helped not just individual workers, but spurred growth and innovation in the local economies it was exiting. Along the same lines, the company found buyers for its closing plants, so employment options would remain stable in affected communities.

The upshot was more than simple good will, Winterberg said. Throughout the process, the company was able to maintain its factory scorecards and employee engagement scores, which typically fall during restructuring, and to continue completing R&D projects in the pipeline, ensuring the future health of the firm.

Most relevant to the idea of ethics and automation is that organizations adopted a stewardship mindset, Winterberg said. They acknowledge that they’re employers, they’re contributors to their communities, and that they play an important role in their customers' lives.

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For more info Tracy Mayor Senior Associate Director, Editorial (617) 253-0065