Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 219–229 | Cite as

The tragedy of the master: automation, vulnerability, and distance

  • Mark CoeckelberghEmail author
Original Paper


Responding to long-standing warnings that robots and AI will enslave humans, I argue that the main problem we face is not that automation might turn us into slaves but, rather, that we remain masters. First I construct an argument concerning what I call ‘the tragedy of the master’: using the master–slave dialectic, I argue that automation technologies threaten to make us vulnerable, alienated, and automated masters. I elaborate the implications for power, knowledge, and experience. Then I critically discuss and question this argument but also the very thinking in terms of masters and slaves, which fuels both arguments. I question the discourse about slavery and object to the assumptions made about human–technology relations. However, I also show that the discussion about masters and slaves attends us to issues with human–human relations, in particular to the social consequences of automation such as power issues and the problem of the relation between automation and (un)employment. Finally, I reflect on how we can respond to our predicament, to ‘the tragedy of the master’.


Automation Artificial intelligence Robotics AI Ethics of AI Philosophy of AI Master–slave dialectic 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Technology, Centre for Computing and Social ResponsibilityDe Montfort UniversityLeicesterUK

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