Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Digital Technology and the Greater Good

Adam Smith wrote about the concept of rational self-interest, which posits we work together for the greater good when it benefits ourselves. Does this concept have relevance in the context of robots, automation and employment? I think it does.

I believe most of us would agree that replacing large numbers of humans with machines that result in wide scale unemployment and suffering is not in our rational self-interest. Having massive numbers of jobs terminated by the Terminator does not result in a safer, healthier civilization or vibrant economy; therefore, it is not in our best interest.

Just because something is possible, does not mean it is good. A powerful king that takes all the food, property and means of production away from his people resulting in their suffering, quickly becomes a target of their wrath, and on a quick path to poverty.

Businesses that replace human workers with machines and software, out of self-interest, will over time find it increasingly difficult to sell their products to their unemployed or underemployed consumers. At what point do businesses seek to expand employment opportunities out of a rational self-interest rather than decrease them through automation? Is it a realistic option for profit maximizing businesses to seek the greater good?

In the short-term, factories hope to benefit from automation faster than their competition in order to gain advantages, while there are still sufficient numbers of consumers employed elsewhere to provide a market for their goods. In the mid-term, entire industries will automate and terminate large numbers of jobs, but hope other, slower-to-automate industries will employ their consumer base. In the long-term, however, when digital transformation has swept through all industries, who is left to employ the consumers and provide them living wages, and who is left with capital to buy goods?

As jobs that require little training or education diminish in numbers, we have two choices, 1) Increase education levels to equip our population for the digital future, or 2) subsidize the unemployed and underemployed with a sufficient income to survive and maintain their dignity. If there are still not enough jobs for those that work hard to increase their level of education, then we are reduced to one choice.

There are plenty of problems left on this planet to be solved. Solving these problems could employ many. Today, however, not all of these problems have economic values assigned to them. Fresh water sources, clean air, forestation, peace, better health, better education, etc., all of these have the potential to generate enormous economic benefits, but they need society to place a value on them and reward innovations and employment in these areas.

A vibrant economy, and a safe and secure society depend on healthy employment numbers, adequate wages, property ownership and rights, hope, peace and purpose. Digital transformation must foster these goals, or risks accelerating a break down in our society and economy – two things that can dampen a New Year’s celebration.

Follow Kevin Benedict on Twitter @krbenedict, or read more of his articles on digital transformation strategies here:

  1. Video Report: 40 Months of Hyper-Digital Transformation
  2. Report: 40 Months of Hyper-Digital Transformation
  3. Virtual Moves to Real in with Sensors and Digital Transformation
  4. Technology Must Disappear in 2017
  5. Merging Humans with AI and Machine Learning Systems
  6. In Defense of the Human Experience in a Digital World
  7. Profits that Kill in the Age of Digital Transformation
  8. Competing in Future Time and Digital Transformation
  9. Digital Hope and Redemption in the Digital Age
  10. Digital Transformation and the Role of Faster
  11. Digital Transformation and the Law of Thermodynamics
  12. Jettison the Heavy Baggage and Digitally Transform
  13. Digital Transformation - The Dark Side
  14. Business is Not as Usual in Digital Transformation
  15. 15 Rules for Winning in Digital Transformation
  16. The End Goal of Digital Transformation
  17. Digital Transformation and the Ignorance Penalty
  18. Surviving the Three Ages of Digital Transformation
  19. The Advantages of an Advantage in Digital Transformation
  20. From Digital to Hyper-Transformation
  21. Believers, Non-Believers and Digital Transformation
  22. Forces Driving the Digital Transformation Era
  23. Digital Transformation Requires Agility and Energy Measurement
  24. A Doctrine for Digital Transformation is Required
  25. Digital Transformation and Its Role in Mobility and Competition
  26. Digital Transformation - A Revolution in Precision Through IoT, Analytics and Mobility
  27. Competing in Digital Transformation and Mobility
  28. Ambiguity and Digital Transformation
  29. Digital Transformation and Mobility - Macro-Forces and Timing
  30. Mobile and IoT Technologies are Inside the Curve of Human Time
Kevin Benedict
Senior Analyst, Center for the Future of Work, Cognizant
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I am a mobility and digital transformation analyst, consultant and writer. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.