Skip to main content

Technological unemployment and human disenhancement

Abstract

This paper discusses the concept of “human disenhancement”, i.e. the worsening of human individual abilities and expectations through technology. The goal is provoking ethical reflection on technological innovation outside the biomedical realm, in particular the substitution of human work with computer-driven automation. According to some widely accepted economic theories, automatization and computerization are responsible for the disappearance of many middle-class jobs. I argue that, if that is the case, a technological innovation can be a cause of “human disenhancement”, globally, and all things considered, even when the local and immediate effect of that technology is to increase the demand of more sophisticated human skills than the ones they substitute. The conclusion is that current innovations in the ICT sector are objectionable from a moral point of view, because they disenhance more people than they enhance.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    This distinction follows closely the one provided by Savulescu, Sandberg and Kahane (2011b), the use of the labels “functional” and “welfarist” also follows closely their reconstruction in that paper.

  2. 2.

    Rousseau can be interpreted as accusing technology and complex society of moral disenhancement. Moral (dis)enhancement refers to the use of technology to influence the moral virtues of individuals (Douglas 2008).

  3. 3.

    For the distinction between welfare and perfectionist value of a life see Sumner (1996).

  4. 4.

    Clearly those explanations of inequality trends do not rule out other, possibly concomitant, causes (Piketty and Saez 2014).

  5. 5.

    Griffin’s informed-desired theory also includes these goods as items in a list of objectively (prudentially) valuable goods. Griffin’s theory defines a desire as informed when it relies on an adequate understanding of the values at stake, so it also ultimately relies on an objective list of prudential values, while allowing substantial individual variability in the optimal balance of such values within each life (Griffin 1986). Griffin’s informed-desire theory has been described as an objective list-theory with an endorsement constraint by Arneson (1999).

  6. 6.

    In spite of Google’s relative success with respect to driverless cars. These cars get stuck when facing unusual situations, such as traffic jams, that require human (i.e. non strictly rule-based) judgment to be solved.

References

  1. Arneson, R. J. (1999). Human flourishing versus desire satisfaction. Social Philosophy and Policy, 16(1), 113–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Autor, D. H. (2010). The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market: Implications for Employment and Earnings. Jointly released by The Center for American Progress and The Hamilton Project. http://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2010/04/job_polarization_report.html.

  3. Autor, D. H. (2014, August 21). Polanyi’s Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth. Prepared for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s economic policy symposium on “Re-Evaluating Labor Market Dynamics,” Jackson Hole, Wyoming. http://economics.mit.edu/files/9835.

  4. Autor, D. H., & Dorn, D. (2013a). The growth of low-skill service jobs and the polarization of the US labor market. The American Economic Review, 103(5), 1553–1597.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Autor, D. H., & Dorn, D. (2013b, August 24). How technology wrecks the middle class. New York Times, pp. 24–27. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/how-technology-wrecks-the-middle-class/

  6. Autor, D. H., Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2003). The skill content of recent technological change: An empirical exploration. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(4), 1279–1333.

    Article  MATH  Google Scholar 

  7. Bostrom, N., & Roache, R. (2011). Smart policy: Cognitive enhancement and the public interest. In G. Kahane, J. Savulescu, & R. Ter Meulen (Eds.), Enhancing human capacities (pp. 138–149). Oxford: Wiley and Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2011). Race against the machine: How the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity, and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy. Washington: Digital Frontier Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: WW Norton & Company.

  10. Buchanan, A. E. (2008). Enhancement and the ethics of development. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 18(1), 1–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Buchanan, A. E. (2011). Beyond humanity? The ethics of biomedical enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  12. Buchanan, A. E., Brock, D. W., Daniels, N., & Wikler, D. (2000). From chance to choice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Buchanan, A., Cole, T., & Keohane, R. O. (2011). Justice in the diffusion of innovation. Journal of Political Philosophy, 19(3), 306–332. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2009.00348.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Chatterjee, A. (2004). Cosmetic neurology: The controversy over enhancing movement, mentation, and mood. Neurology, 63(6), 968–974.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Cowen, T. (2011). The great stagnation: How America ate all the low-hanging fruit of modern history, got sick, and will (Eventually) feel better. New York: Dutton Adult.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Cowen, T. (2013). Average is over: powering America beyond the age of the great stagnation.

  17. Craig Smith. (2014). 100 + Amazing Instagram Statistics (December 2014). http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/important-instagram-stats/. Accessed 14 December 2014.

  18. Douglas, T. (2008). Moral enhancement. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(3), 228–245. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5930.2008.00412.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Eurofound. (2014). United Kingdom: Trends in skills requirements and work-related issues. Eurofound. http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/observatories/eurwork/articles/working-conditions/united-kingdom-trends-in-skills-requirements-and-work-related-issues. Accessed 17 May 2015.

  20. Finnis, J. (2011). Natural law and natural rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Ford, M. (2009). The lights in the tunnel: Automation, accelerating technology and the economy of the future. Wayne: Acculant Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Frank, R. H., & Cook, P. J. (1995). The winner-take-all society: How more and more americans compete for ever fewer and bigger prizes, encouraging economic waste, income inequality, and an impoverished cultural life. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2013). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation. Oxford, UK: Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Tecnology.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Gershman, S. J., Horvitz, E. J., & Tenenbaum, J. B. (2015). Computational rationality: A converging paradigm for intelligence in brains, minds, and machines. Science, 349(6245), 273–278. doi:10.1126/science.aac6076.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Goldin, C. D., & Katz, L. F. (2008). The race between education and technology. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Goos, M., & Manning, A. (2007). Lousy and lovely jobs: The rising polarization of work in Britain. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 89(1), 118–133.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Gosseries, A. (2005). Intergenerational Justice. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199284238.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199284238-e-19. Accessed 15 November 2013.

  28. Greely, H., Sahakian, B., Harris, J., Kessler, R. C., Gazzaniga, M., Campbell, P., & Farah, M. J. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature, 456(7223), 702–705. doi:10.1038/456702a.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Griffin, J. (1986). Well-being: Its meaning, measurement, and moral importance. Oxford: Claredon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Harris, J. (1992). Wonderwoman and Superman: the ethics of human biotechnology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Heckman, J. J. (2008, June). Schools, Skills, and Synapses. Working Paper 14064 National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge MA. http://www.nber.org/papers/w14064.

  32. Heller, J., & Peterson, C. (2009). Human enhancement and nanotechnology: A foresight nanotech institute policy issues brief. The Forsesight Institute. http://www.foresight.org/policy/brief2.html. Accessed 28 November 2009.

  33. Henschke, A. (2012). Making sense of animal disenhancement. NanoEthics, 6(1), 55–64. doi:10.1007/s11569-012-0140-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Hernandez, D., & Kaiser Health News. (2014, June 2). Artificial intelligence is now telling doctors how to treat you. WIRED. http://www.wired.com/2014/06/ai-healthcare/. Accessed 19 July 2015.

  35. Hirschberg, J., & Manning, C. D. (2015). Advances in natural language processing. Science, 349(6245), 261–266. doi:10.1126/science.aaa8685.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Jordan, M. I., & Mitchell, T. M. (2015). Machine learning: Trends, perspectives, and prospects. Science, 349(6245), 255–260. doi:10.1126/science.aaa8415.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Krugman, P. (2012, December 8). Rise of the Robots. Paul Krugman Blog. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/rise-of-the-robots/. Accessed 21 April 2015.

  38. Lemieux, T. (2006). Post-Secondary education and increasing wage inequality (NBER Working Paper No. 12077). National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. https://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/12077.html. Accessed 22 January 2015.

  39. Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. New York, Princeton : Russell Sage Foundation, Princeton University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  40. Marmot, M. G., Siegrist, J., & Theorell, T. (2006). Health and the psychosocial environment at work. In R. G. Wilkinson & M. G. Marmot (Eds.), Social determinants of health (2nd ed., pp. 97–130). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Marx, K. (1887). In S. Moore (Ed.), Capital Volume One: The Process of Production of Capital (First English edition of 1887 (4th German edition changes included as indicated). On-line HTML edition by www.marxists.org., Vols. 1-3, Vol. 1). Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/.

  42. Mehlman, M. J. (2000). The law of above averages: Leveling the new genetic enhancement playing field. Iowa Law Review, 85(2), 517–593.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Moravec’s paradox. (2014). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moravec%27%CA%B9s_paradox. Accessed 3 October 2014.

  44. Outram, S. M., & Racine, E. (2011). Developing public health approaches to cognitive enhancement: An analysis of current reports. Public Health Ethics, 4(1), 93–105. doi:10.1093/phe/phr006.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Parkes, D. C., & Wellman, M. P. (2015). Economic reasoning and artificial intelligence. Science, 349(6245), 267–272. doi:10.1126/science.aaa8403.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Pierce, B. (2001). Compensation inequality. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(4), 1493–1525.

  48. Pierce, B. (2010). Recent Trends in Compensation Inequality. In Labor in the new economy (pp. 63–98). University of Chicago Press. http://www.nber.org/chapters/c10814.pdf. Accessed 22 January 2015.

  49. Piketty, T., & Saez, E. (2014). Inequality in the long run. Science, 344(6186), 838–843. doi:10.1126/science.1251936.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Rawls, J. (1996). The basic structure as subject. In Political liberalism (pp. 257–288). New York: Columbia University Press.

  52. Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Rochester Business Journal. (2012, January 19). Kodak’s growth and decline: a timeline|Rochester Business Journal New York business news and information. Rochester Business Journal. http://www.rbj.net/article.asp?aID=190078. Accessed 14 December 2014.

  54. Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2011). The social and economic impacts of cognitive enhancements. In G. Kahane, J. Savulescu, & R. Ter Meulen (Eds.), Enhancing human capacities (pp. 92–112). Oxford: Wiley and Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Sandoe, P., Nielsen, B. L., Christensen, L. G., & Sorensen, P. (1999). Staying good while playing god–the ethics of breeding farm animals. Animal Welfare, 8(4), 313–328.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Savulescu, J., & Kahane, G. (2009). The moral obligation to create children with the best chance of the best life. Bioethics, 23(5), 274–290.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Savulescu, J., Meulen, R., & Kahane, G. (2011a). Enhancing human capacities. Hoboken: Wiley.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  58. Savulescu, J., Sandberg, A., & Kahane, G. (2011b). Well-being and enhancement. In G. Kahane, J. Savulescu, & R. Ter Meulen (Eds.), Enhancing human capacities (pp. 1–18). Oxford: Blackwell.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  59. Stajic, J., Stone, R., Chin, G., & Wible, B. (2015). Rise of the machines. Science, 349(6245), 248–249. doi:10.1126/science.349.6245.248.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Stone, B., & Vance, A. (2012, October 4). Facebook’s “Next Billion”: A Q&A With Mark Zuckerberg. BusinessWeek: technology. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-10-04/facebooks-next-billion-a-q-and-a-with-mark-zuckerberg. Accessed 14 December 2014.

  61. Veen, R. J. V. D., & Van Parijs, P. (1986). A capitalist road to communism. Theory and Society, 15(5), 635–655.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Williams, A. (1998). Incentives, inequality, and publicity. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 27(3), 225–247.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Sumner, L. W. (1996). Welfare, happiness, and ethics. New York, Oxford: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michele Loi.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Loi, M. Technological unemployment and human disenhancement. Ethics Inf Technol 17, 201–210 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-015-9375-8

Download citation

Keywords

  • Machine Intelligence
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Technological unemployment
  • Biomedical enhancement
  • Social justice
  • Race between education and technology
  • ICT
  • Information technology