Two reviews of Seán McDonagh’s book Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs.
Seán McDonagh, Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs (Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2021), 182 pages.
Sean McDonagh is not concerned about a robot apocalypse in the style of a blockbuster movie. What he writes about in his new book Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs is more banal and insidious, and more frightening – because it is real.
As with McDonagh’s other publications, his fundamental concern throughout this book is the impact we are having on God’s creation (including our fellow humans). Books on these topics, such as Zuboff’s excellent The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, often assume that the reader has some expertise in modern technology. One of the strengths of this book is that it is aimed at lay people who may not already be aware of (for example) the privacy pitfalls of smartphones, or the advanced level of modern robotics.
Naturally, being a Catholic priest, McDonagh’s arguments are informed by his faith. In almost every chapter he calls on religious institutions to carefully examine the issues he is raising, and to act to protect the vulnerable. This perspective does not make the book any less accessible to a wider audience, however. The arguments stand on their own merit, and his concerns ought to move any compassionate person.
McDonagh has written extensively on environmental issues, including: To Care for The Earth (1986), The Death of Life, The Horror of Extinction (2004), Climate Change: The Challenge to Us All (2006), and Laudato Si’: An Irish Response (2017). He has been a persistent voice calling on the hierarchy of the Catholic church to take environmental degradation seriously. In the final chapter of this book, he calls them out for consistently failing to respond to crises in a timely manner: ‘The Catholic Church often arrives at issues a little breathless and a little late’ (177).
In this volume he weaves together many topics raised by what he calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution (28). As the title of the book suggests, there is an emphasis on the negative impact of automation on jobs. It is refreshing that McDonagh is particularly interested in employment in the developing world, no doubt this perspective influenced by his experience as a Columba missionary. His time teaching anthropology in the Philippines in the 70s and 80s gave him a clear view of the unequal impact of global trends on the poorest people in the world, whereas other treatments of these topics often focus entirely on the ways in which employment will be changed in the wealthiest countries.
The book begins with an introduction that contrasts the modern technological milieu with the author’s own experience in Mindanao in the early 70s. In just a few decades he has gone from a situation where it was challenging to arrange a monthly phone call, to having the internet in his pocket. This rapid change, and our society’s failure to adapt to its ethical implications, is one of the main themes of Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs.
He also takes time here to introduce some of the threats posed by surveillance capitalism, including invasion of privacy and misinformation. He says that the ‘battle against the intrusive and unlawful activities of tech companies’ is ‘one of the major justice issues of our time’ (18). He goes on to introduce the question of how codes of ethics might be developed in response, and discusses some of the work in that field being undertaken by the Catholic church.
Another topic which comes up frequently is the tension between the benefits offered by new technologies and the threats they pose: 3D printing allows us to produce exciting things (such as prosthetics and even organs) with less waste, but it also threatens the jobs of already exploited workers around the world; facial recognition facilitates tracing of kidnapped children (49), but is also a severe threat to privacy; robots can do dangerous work that might be impossible for humans, but if their owners are allowed to monopolise work, the resulting unemployment could have devastating consequences.
One of the more optimistic sections of the book is the chapter on medical care (chapter 6). While there are still plenty of cautious notes – such as the risk of patients humanising the technology, and the embedding of bias in Artificial Intelligence (AI) – there is much to be excited about. A lot of progress has been made in developing surgery robots capable of performing operations too delicate for even the most gifted human to perform, for example, and lowering of costs may make healthcare more accessible (101).
The mechanisation of farming (chapter 5) is not a new phenomenon, but the process has been accelerating rapidly. Where farming used to be a communal activity that required people to be in tune with the land, modern practices distance the farmer from other people and from the natural world. He or she works alone, driving a sophisticated machine which necessitates the simplification of the environment. Hedgerows are destroyed and land is flattened, to make room for enormous vehicles. These changes, as well as monoculture practices, reduce biodiversity and soil health, and provide less resilience, but are necessitated by the financial pressure to maximise efficiency. In addition to the environmental costs, and the continuing reduction in available paid work in the sector, McDonagh is rightly concerned by the potential impact on farmers’ mental health (92).
In his discussion of self-driven vehicles (chapter 8), he gives a good account of the complexities of the domain. Cars driven by humans are extremely dangerous, and arguably self-driven cars don’t need to be perfect, just better (126). However, every death caused by an autonomous vehicle feels newsworthy, and re-ignites debates about ethics. As with all forms of AI, there is a risk that software developers’ biases will be encoded into the vehicle’s behaviour, an outcome that must be actively resisted (128). He also raises an interesting point that I have not seen discussed elsewhere. There are an enormous number of jobs which exist to support drivers, especially long haul drivers (who will be a particular target of automation). When drivers lose their jobs, so will staff at ‘motels, restaurants and filling stations’ (133).
On the other hand, predictions about the imminence of widespread use of the technology must be taken with a grain of salt. Pundits have been predicting a two-to-three-year time-frame for the widespread introduction of self-driving vehicles since at least 2015.
This chapter is also where he raises the complexities of the environmental and human rights impact of electric vehicles. Clearly, emissions are lower (especially if the electricity used comes from renewable sources), but the lithium and cobalt used in batteries must be sourced somewhere, and this may be in countries with poor regulation of health and safety, or child-labour (132).
In a book full of warnings and well-placed concerns, the most upsetting topic is surely the use of advanced, autonomous technology in war (chapter 9).The tragic injustice of drone warfare is in the news again, as a whistle blower’s letter circulates. The letter, written by former Intelligence Analyst Daniel Hale to the judge who sentenced him to 45 months in prison, is a harrowing account of his experience within the US military machine. It explicitly argues that the horrors he witnessed, and contributed to, are more about profit than protection.
Drones have been used in war for a long time – Austria bombed Venice in 1849 using pilotless balloons – but technology is advancing apace. In a recent UN report it was revealed that an autonomous drone was used in Libya, in March 2020 without human oversight. The report is unclear on whether anyone was killed in the operation, but it is possible that a machine-learning algorithm has already been allowed to choose who will die. As McDonagh says, this distancing from human decision-makers depersonalises mass killing (139). It also makes war less costly, both financially and in soldier deaths, which reduces disincentives to wage war.
Thankfully McDonagh is able to point to opposition to this use of technology, from academia, from within the UN, and from employees at large tech firms. But still, as he says, ‘there is not enough serious discussion about it’ (138).
For me, the most uplifting chapter is the one about Universal Basic Income (UBI) (chapter 10). This is a proposal to decouple paid work from the provision of basic human needs. The idea is that every person receives a regular unconditional payment. This payment should be sufficient for the person not to be obliged to earn any money to feed, clothe, or house themselves. While this is not a solution to all of the ills of modern technology, it does seem like a sensible response to the main concern of this book: the mass unemployment threatened by increasing automation. If, as McDonagh predicts (29), this fourth industrial revolution differs from the previous three – if this time newly obsolete jobs are not replaced by previously unimagined jobs – there will be a lot of people left destitute. This is not a result of the natural order of things, it is a consequence of the financial system we have developed.
UBI, if it is implemented for humanitarian reasons, could be a very powerful tool for freedom and justice. For example, a decent payment which allowed people to live with dignity would give them the power to refuse to take on work that is badly paid or dangerous. This could revolutionise the relationship between the wider populace and the capital-owning class. There is a risk, however, that it will be implemented under neo-liberal principles. Those with more power than compassion may argue that universal healthcare, and similar social goods, are no longer necessary in tandem with UBI, and the level of payment could be set too low for genuine human flourishing. This would prevent UBI from achieving some of its loftier goals. Some of the weaknesses of the neoliberal model were revealed in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the author is hopeful that this new economic climate may open the path to the introduction of UBI (151).
Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs is a whistle stop tour of some of the benefits and challenges of modern technology. It is an engaging read, and a good introduction to the topic for the lay person. McDonagh’s writing is clear and accessible, despite covering a technical subject matter. As with his other works, he is raising the alarm on a topic of great import; one which threatens the stability of our society; one where the consequences are likely to become undeniable within our lifetimes.
Margaret McGaley completed her doctorate in Computer Science on the topic of e-voting in 2008 at NUI Maynooth. She writes occasionally on technology and ethics and lives on a permacultural smallholding in Tipperary.
‘Search. A Church of Ireland Journal’
vol. 44.2 (Summer, 2021)
Robots, Ethics, and the Future of Jobs
Dublin, Messenger Publications,
“IT WAS the best of times; it was the worst of times.” These famous words, which begin Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, well sum up our experience of life in pandemic times. It has been the best of times in that we have been given a cultural reset, the time needed to rethink unsustainable patterns of living, and the resources needed to foster innovative uses of technology to stay in touch. It has been the worst of times in that so many people have known suffering and loss in ways no one should; and with any innovation, technological or otherwise, the associated issues are always vast and complex. Numerous reports of security breaches on Zoom have highlighted the serious privacy issues with some video conferencing platforms, for instance. This has been especially troubling for the Church, given that pastoral contexts rely on trust, vulnerability, and appropriate opportunities for self-disclosure.
Some of these issues lie at the heart of Seán McDonagh’s latest book, Robots, Ethics, and the Future of Jobs. Of the many insightful observations made by McDonagh, one of the most important is also the most basic and sustained throughout the book: that we must pay closer attention to the ethical challenges created by emerging technology. This conviction animates his entire project; it is thoughtfully explored in several directions.
To begin with, the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI), drones, and robots on employment is explored, before the opportunities and challenges created by our increasing reliance on algorithms is examined. This analysis is timely, given that social media platforms threaten to turn us into abstracted, algorithmic versions of ourselves. Next McDonagh considers the ways in which advancements in 3D printing technology might enable developed countries to produce goods locally; hence potentially damaging employment opportunities in developing countries. He goes on to suggest the impact drones might have on employment in the future and to consider the implications of several technological advancements for work in the caring professions. Retail and banking issues are considered next and as the book moves towards its close, the impact of robots in the transport industry is explored. This is followed by a sobering analysis of robots in the military and arguments for the immorality of autonomous weapons – a matter which is particularly noteworthy, given the contingencies created by remote working and screen interaction, with drone pilots dropping bombs from several thousand miles away, for example.
Three sections not mentioned above, warrant closer examination here. In Chapter 5, McDonagh examines the use of robots in agriculture, which is particularly significant in the Irish context, where innumerable small farmers selfishly look after low revenue farms across the two civil jurisdictions. McDonagh holds the structure together well, showing his distinctive command of the subject. This chapter is McDonagh at his best—intelligent, critically reflective, and honest. Then in Chapter 10, McDonagh sets out a convincing case for Universal Basic Income (UBI), presenting it as a positive way to alter the relationship between capital and labour. The pandemic has rapidly accelerated interest in UBI, by exposing the frayed edges of our political and economic systems and the need for progress to a more equitable post-Covid world, removing the threat to render labour capital virtually redundant
Finally, McDonagh argues that Catholic Social Teaching (CST) might creatively resource our responses to the issues raised by emerging technology. Although I greatly admire this conviction, I do not think McDonagh fully develops the importance of solidarity here — a significant oversight, given that solidarity was well established as part of CST by John Paul II and his close association with the Polish trade unions. It is surprising, for instance, that McDonagh makes no reference to trade unions as a means of expressing our interdependence with one another.
Nevertheless, McDonagh deals beautifully with a difficult subject throughout the book. From our experience of the opportunities and challenges afforded by technology in pandemic times, we are acutely aware that careful examination of the issues is mandatory. It is essential that we become familiar with technological advancements as they emerge, along with their inbuilt assumption and why these matter. McDonagh writes with clarity and charity on this vital topic. The book is also a pleasure to read.
The Revd Chris West is curate in the parish of Taney, Diocese of Dublin