Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs

Columban missionary Fr. Sean McDonagh is renowned for his leadership on climate change and care for the earth. His latest book explores ‘Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs’. To give you a sense of its prophetic insights, a review of it by Denis Blackledge SJ has been produced. This article was first published in the May/June 2021 issue of the Far East magazine.

This is a timely, challenging, stimulating, knowledgeable, and, yes, frightening volume by a well-known author who knows his stuff as an environmental theologian. Moreover, he writes in a style which is crisp and clear, and ends all his eleven chapters with a brief summary conclusion.

The book deals with the awesome rise and staggering advance of Artificial Intelligence [AI] over the past four decades or so, and into our present pandemic era. The impact of AI is all-embracing. How it is regulated, and how institutions provide suitable ethical policies to cope with it, are key issues for our present and future generations. And the Catholic Church in general has not yet wakened up to the vast practical impact of AI, not least on the availability of jobs worldwide.

The author, who was instrumental in helping the Philippine Bishops to write the first-ever ecological pastoral letter, What is happening to our beautiful land?, way back in 1988, systematically highlights how AI has speeded up, and how it has impacted on jobs, algorithms, 3D printing, robots and drones, the future of farming, caring for children, the elderly and those with special needs. He clarifies how AI has changed retail, hospitality, banking, finance and call centres. He focuses on self-driven cars and trucks, and how robots are currently used in warfare. All with stark simplicity and clarity.

He concentrates on how to create a UBI, a Universal Basic Income, defined by Sean Ward in 2016 as: “a substantial, unconditional and tax-free payment from the exchequer to all citizens on an individual basis, financed by a flat tax on all income. It would replace tax credits and tax allowances for those in paid employment and welfare payments for those who are not in paid employment”.

His final chapter reminds the reader of what Catholic Social Teaching has to say about work, seen not as a commodity but as crucial and central to an individual’s self-worth. Pope St John Paul II and our current Pope Francis have written extensively on the creative value of human work, and on the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, 1 May 2020, Pope Francis prayed that no-one would be lacking a job and “that all would be paid justly and may enjoy the dignity of work and the beauty of rest”. Sadly, with the advance of AI, only 40-50% of workers will have paid employment. So Catholic Social Teaching will need to be revisited and revised.

McDonagh believes that “preparing for and responding to the social impacts of AI and automation will be the defining challenge of the next decade, and that the Catholic Church and all religions will need to take this issue on board, as a central pastoral focus of their work at local, national and global level”. He reckons that groups should be formed in every parish and diocese to address this issue. And most of the people dealing with this issue will be lay people, not clergy.

If this does not wake you up, goodness knows what will. This is required reading for all those who take their faith seriously, and with adult responsibility. This book needs to be widely available, read, and its contents put into practice and earthed. Otherwise, humanity is in danger of becoming just another digital app.

Denis Blackledge SJ

An Extract from Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs:

Biases against the Poor, People of Colour and Women

The lack of women in important positions in AI was demonstrated by a survey undertaken by the World Economic Forum and LinkedIn in 2018. It showed that women held only 22 per cent of jobs in the AI workforce. The data also pointed out that women with AI skills are employed in data analytics, research, information management and teaching, whereas men are employed in more lucrative and more powerful roles, such as software engineers or as chief executives.

Ivana Bartoletti, a privacy and data-protection professional who chairs the Fabian Women’s Network, is adamant that young women must query the outcomes of decisions made by algorithms and that, furthermore, they must demand transparency in all the processes that lead to the creation of algorithms; otherwise she believes women will be sidelined.

Bartoletti points out that women lose out on another front because the jobs that are about to be automated through the use of AI technology affect women more than men. For example, in Britain, 73 per cent of cashiers in shops are women, and 97 per cent of these are expected to lose their jobs to automation. Bartoletti believes that it is time for women, not only to investigate what AI means for them, but also to make sure that, ‘in the public discourse, women frame and lead the debate about the governance of AI, so that it becomes a force for the common good and not the ultimate expression of masculine control’.

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