Question on Ethics of automation and AI

Automation and use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to solve repetitive, mundane tasks is the holy grail of computing. This is a trend that software companies, startups and entrepreneurs continue to pay close attention to.

In its recently held 36th annual general meeting in Bangalore, Infosys announced (link) that more than 11,000 jobs had been released due to automation. Revenue per full-time employee (FTE) increased by 1.2 % as a result of automation, utilization and productivity improvements, the company said.

The company also faced question from shareholders on the ethics of automation leading to job losses. While large service companies are chasing larger opportunities for automation, and reflecting on social impact here is a case of an individual benefiting from automation and also coming to grips with the ethical issues involved.

Here is a summary of a post on “The Workplace” from a guy who works remotely on a legacy system for a company:

  • I was hired as a programmer though my job is pretty much glorified data entry for a really old system. I get a bunch of requirements, which is literally just lots of data for each month on spreadsheets and I have to configure the system to make it work, which is basically just writing a whole bunch of SQL scripts.
  • I’ve been doing it for about 18 months and in that time, I’ve figured out all the traps to the point where I’ve actually written a program which for the past 6 months has been just doing the whole thing for me.
  • The task that used to take the programmer who worked before me about a month, now takes about 10 minutes to clean the spreadsheet and run it through the program.

Here is the dilemma faced by the programmer earning a decent pay (Let us call him Mr. X though his gender or name is hidden)

  • Do I tell them (the employer)? If I tell them, they will probably just take the program and get rid of me. This isn’t like a company with tons of IT work – they have a legacy system where they keep all their customer data since forever, and they just need someone to maintain it.
  • I really enjoy the free time but would it be unethical to continue with this arrangement without mentioning anything? It’s not like I’m cheating the company. The company has never indicated they’re dissatisfied with my performance and in fact, are getting exactly what they want from employing me.

This is a great example of an employee who has creatively managed to automate his mundane task to free-up his time. Companies like Infosys are showcasing exactly this kind of benefit from automation by re-deploying thousands of people. Let us look at the question posed by the employee

Is Mr. X unethical in continuing with this arrangement without mentioning anything? Does he tell his employer?

Can Mr. X be fired? Sure. If the employer discovers that Mr. X has been concealing the effort being put by him, and that he is being paid a lot of ‘bench,’ he could lose his job.

This is also a legal gray area. He has not indicated the details of his employment contract, but one can assume that employment agreements for Full-time employees include broad job responsibilities and not just ‘update and maintenance of system x.’

Of course, the manager/s also must take responsibility since they have not asked Mr. X about his current utilization and effort spent in his tasks.

Mr. X’s dilemma is morally justified in reflecting on his predicament. He should bring this up during his next performance / job review discussion with his line manager, and he should

  • Make use of the opportunity to highlight the creative way in which he automated the mundane task.
  • Offer to take other challenges and responsibilities at the company and if no other tasks exist, he could offer to take a pay-cut to continue to support the application ‘part time.’ The company will continue to benefit from his knowledge while he gets paid for the time he actually spends on tasks.

In the best case, the managers will appreciate his creativity and give him a bonus for the ‘programs.’ There is a small risk that managers realize that Mr. X is highly under-utilized and let-go of his services.

Bottomline: Mr. X claims that he has benefitted from this automation for about 18 months, so he should reflect on what he has gained and move out when he is ahead of the game.

Now, back to the broader question this issue raises: if a company like Infosys had a project to maintain such an application system for that client (Mr. X’s employer). And if an Infosys employee discovered a similar automation process, his line managers would surely have found this out. Will Infosys’ account team go back to the client and explain the benefits of automating the task and offer a steep discount?

This is not the first instance of ethical dilemma over benefits of automation. These question are sure to increase as we see benefits of automaton.

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