Mark Coeckelbergh © Barbara Mair

"The robots may come, but the cyborgs are already in the office"


  • Steyr (Gastkommentar) - Are the machines coming for our jobs? The theme of the future of work in the light of automation by robotics and artificial intelligence is attracting a lot of attention. Reports such as those of the Frey and Osborne (Oxford) and McKinsey are predicting that automation will take over many jobs, not only so-called blue collar jobs but also white-collar jobs in the service sector and perhaps even the creative sector. Robots, it is suggested, will not only take over the factories - this has already happened to a significant degree - but also the office.

  • Some promote the utopian idea that this will free up time for creative work. But it could also lead to massive unemployment and increased inequality and injustice. Will human made products and human services such as human waiters in a restaurant or human schoolteachers be only available to the rich, whereas for most of us services and production will be automated? Is the growing pool of freelancers a chance for democratizing entrepreneurship or is it an excuse for denying social security to a large part of the working population? And are the remaining employees blessed with new cool tools or are they ripe for exploitation by means of advanced surveillance technologies? In any case, it is clear that as advances in automation continue, we better reflect on the societal and economic changes it may bring and on the society and the automation we want. It is important to respond to these challenges, as persons but also as organizations and as societies. We need visions of the future of work and of the future development of automation technologies.

  • For this purpose, I recommend taking into account the following considerations.

  • First, the issue about automation and work is often framed in terms of replacement. The machines are coming and they will take our jobs. So the problem is presented as a choice between two options: either humans do the work, or machines take over. But there is a third option: one in which humans and machines work together. Increasing automation may imply not only replacement but also new couplings between humans and machines. New cyborgs. "New", since this is already the way many of us work today. In factories, but also in the office: we collaborate with computer programs to do our work. New algorithms will be developed that change these collaborations, without replacing the human. This creates chances to do new things, perhaps also new creative things. But there is also the danger that this increased cyborg-style automation leads to new ways of working that have even less regard for human needs and well-being, and that further exploit us for profit. Consider how today e-mail, smartphones, and social media threaten our well-being as they increasingly demand that we continuously convert our physiological, biological energy into data that can then be sold by large corporations - blurring the line between work time and leisure time, and demanding constant attention. And as mentioned there may be also increased opportunities for employers or platforms to monitor employees and freelancers in order to increase exploitation.

  • This link with what is already happening today leads us to a second issue: the changes are slow and incremental, and they are largely invisible. The utopia and dystopia of automation presuppose that there will be a sudden change (for instance the so-called "Singuarity", when artificial intelligence is supposed to outsmart us) and that then there are "the machines" and "the robots" that are coming for us. In other words, they presuppose that the opportunities and threats come in the form of human-like robots, clearly recognizable artificial workers that take our jobs, and that this change is rather sudden and very visible. But this narrative covers up that there are already many algorithms doing their work "behind the screens", increasingly automating our work and our lives without us noticing it. When we use our smartphones and all kinds of programs on the internet, algorithms are already working with us. We are slowly but surely turned into cyborgs but we do not realize it. Most of the artificial workers that take jobs or that collaborate with us have no human form but are hidden behind the attractive graphical interfaces of the many programs we use - often without knowing it. Only a small minority of people understand what the technologies are doing. The rest - the vast majority of screenworkers - have no idea about their artificial co-workers. This also means that they lack the power and agency to shape their work. Today's information technologies, because of their networked character, are not transparent with regard to who does what and who knows what about whom. This encourages the creation of zombie workers who are ignorant about what they are doing.

  • Finally, it is important to understand that the new automation technologies, like all technologies, are not mere tools for getting specific tasks done, but that they shape and organize our lives - including our work lives, which blend with the rest of our lives. Consider again the example of e-mail: e-mail programs do not only enable us to send and receive messages, related to a specific work task. They have also changed the way we work, they re-organized and continue to organize our work time and work tasks. Today e-mail takes up a significant part of our work, it has become our work, it is part of the tasks we do. They also mix work and leisure. We are now stimulated to work 24/7. Similarly, new automation technologies will re-organize our work and define what work we do and what work means. Increased automation then means that algorithms organize our work, and most likely that we have less agency when it comes to deciding what work we do and how we work. Like conveyer belts introduced new choreographies of work, new automation technologies introduce and will introduce new ways of doing things: new gestures, new ways of moving, new ways of organizing our day, and so on. Consider for instance how the smartphone "demands" specific ways of moving and gesturing, ways of standing and looking, etc. The new cyborgs that are created today will lead to new choreographies in which humans and machines take part. And in these performances it is unclear who is the director. Is it the algorithm? Is it the corporation that created the algorithm and uses it to generate profit? To what extent can we still direct and organize our own movements, our own ways of working, our own roles, our own lives?

  • Of course the new technologies may have enormous benefits and create new opportunities. But if we want to make sure that these developments in automation and AI move in directions that are in line with our human values, we first need to better understand what form the new human-technology entanglements would take, what they would mean for the way we work, and what potential problems they raise. This requires better analysis of the specific ways our current (work) lives are already shaped and organized by algorithms and machines, including the ways our current work already turns us into cyborgs.

  • Perhaps it is no longer possible to undo our entanglements with technologies; perhaps we will remain cyborgs, at work and in our lives. But at least we should ask the question what kind of entanglements we want, what kind of cyborgs we want to be.

Zur Person

Mark Coeckelbergh, Department für Philosophie, Universität Wien

Mark Coeckelbergh is Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Vienna and President of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. He is also (part-time) Professor of Technology and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University, UK, and has served as Managing Director of the 3TU Centre for Ethics and Technology in the Netherlands. His publications include Growing Moral Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Human Being @ Risk (Springer, 2013), Environmental Skill (Routledge, 2015), Money Machines (Ashgate, 2015), New Romantic Cyborgs (MIT Press, 2017), Using Words and Things (Routledge, 2017), and numerous articles in the area of philosophy of technology, in particular the ethics of robotics, AI, and (other) information and communication technologies. He is also involved in interdisciplinary research projects (e.g. the European project DREAM), collaborates with artists and curators, has contributed to manifestos on humans and technology, and is on the advisory board of several journals in the field. In February 2018 he organizes the Robophilosophy conference dedicated to the politics and policy of robotics in society.

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