Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | The morality of machines and the fight of the Luddites

Two months ago, we wrote that the important question was not whether machines must be taught morals but whether machines were moral at all (Think Before Getting Machines To Take Moral Decisions For Us, 15 April 2019). It is time to provide some answers. First, a disclaimer is in order. We do not carry an anti-technology gene.

The attention of one of us was drawn to a recent article in The Washington Post which said that humans were better off not using Global Positioning System (GPS) while driving but use their brains, memory, etc. to arrive at their destinations. The article can strike a chord with many of us because the craving for a simpler life and a return to the basics is there in most of us. We are overwhelmed by the complexity of technology and what it demands of us—passwords, two-factor authentications, robotic voices at the other end of a service call, etc. However, abandoning GPS can be foolhardy.

The hippocampus in our brain, whose development and good health are hindered by the use of memory-aid devices, is also retarded by stress and depression. Hence, getting lost in a strange place in the night and engaging in a blame-game with your passenger for wrong navigation could be harmful to the hippocampus. Navigation skills can be improved by negotiating and debating alternatives in meetings where decisions are made. Getting late to such meetings without GPS would not aid the development of hippocampus. The right way to frame the issue is to ask oneself whether the cost of using GPS would exceed the cost of not using it, in a given context.

Science and technology are merely instruments for human progress. They cannot be ends in themselves. Their costs and benefits for the society have to be constantly evaluated, some pursued and some shelved. For example, scientists are calling for a moratorium on the use of powerful DNA editing tools to make genetically modified children (The Guardian, 13 March 2019). This resonates with the call for preserving our collective ignorance from Artificial Intelligence in some matters (We Need To Save Ignorance From AI, Nautilus, June 2018). We are better off not knowing certain information.

In his testimony to the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy recently, Jim Balsillie, retired co-CEO of Research In Motion (remember Blackberry?) said that behavioural scientists involved with (technology) platforms helped design user experiences that capitalized on negative reactions because they produced far more engagement than positive reactions. He added that the dynamics of the “attention economy" were structurally engineered to undermine human will. The point is not that the technology platforms are being subverted by anti-progressives but that the platforms themselves were a subversion of societies. Technology is being harnessed by a few men and women for personal glory and profits at the expense of millions of people and workers.

In a recent study (Work Of The Past, Work Of The Future, published in The National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2019), David Autor wrote that changes in the nature of work in the last few decades—mostly technological—have been more disruptive and less beneficial for non-college than college workers.

This is consistent with historical evidence. Andrew Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, has documented (Ideas And Institutions, May 2018) that the previous industrial revolutions had indeed extracted a heavy toll on workers: there was a significant loss of livelihood for workers whose set of tasks was the most susceptible to automation; there were rising levels of inequality; workers did not always benefit, fully or immediately, from technologically induced gains in companies’ productivity profitability and; periods of technological transition were often lengthy as well as painful.

It is one thing to say, in theory, that the winners should share their gains with losers so that society as a whole is not worse off and that taxation is the route to do so. But, in practice, political economy and levers of power do not allow such neat solutions that feature prominently in op-eds, or in seemingly more erudite forums. No wonder the workers of England rose up against the machines in 1811.

Richard Conniff wrote for the Smithsonian magazine in March 2011 that the Luddites confined their attacks to manufacturers (or owners) who used machines in a fraudulent and deceitful manner to get around standard labour practices. They were not anti-technology. That should strike a chord with many workers today who are toiling away for meagre wages, whether in service industries or in manufacturing.

The purpose of this column is to remind policymakers of the instrumentality of technology. The usefulness of instruments depends on their applications. Costs and benefits need to be constantly evaluated and updated. Where the former exceeds the latter, such technologies must be mothballed, even permanently. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically good about technology.

V. Anantha Nageswaran & S. Raghu Raman are, respectively, dean and professor, IFMR Graduate School of Business, Krea University. These are the authors’ personal views.

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