The Right To Be Free From Automation

Essay by Ziyaad Bhorat: “Is it possible to free ourselves from automation? The idea sounds fanciful, if not outright absurd. Industrial and technological development have reached a planetary level, and automation, as the general substitution or augmentation of human work with artificial tools capable of completing tasks on their own, is the bedrock of all the technologies designed to save, assist and connect us. 

From industrial lathes to OpenAI’s ChatGPT, automation is one of the most groundbreaking achievements in the history of humanity. As a consequence of the human ingenuity and imagination involved in automating our tools, the sky is quite literally no longer a limit. 

But in thinking about our relationship to automation in contemporary life, my unease has grown. And I’m not alone — America’s Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and the European Union’s GDPR both express skepticism of automated tools and systems: The “use of technology, data and automated systems in ways that threaten the rights of the American public”; the “right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing.” 

If we look a little deeper, we find this uneasy language in other places where people have been guarding three important abilities against automated technologies. Historically, we have found these abilities so important that we now include them in various contemporary rights frameworks: the right to work, the right to know and understand the source of the things we consume, and the right to make our own decisions. Whether we like it or not, therefore, communities and individuals are already asserting the importance of protecting people from the ubiquity of automated tools and systems.

Consider the case of one of South Africa’s largest retailers, Pick n Pay, which in 2016 tried to introduce self-checkout technology in its retail stores. In post-Apartheid South Africa, trade unions are immensely powerful and unemployment persistently high, so any retail firm that wants to introduce technology that might affect the demand for labor faces huge challenges. After the country’s largest union federation threatened to boycott the new Pick n Pay machines, the company scrapped its pilot. 

As the sociologist Christopher Andrews writes in “The Overworked Consumer,” self-checkout technology is by no means a universally good thing. Firms that introduce it need to deal with new forms of theft, maintenance and bottleneck, while customers end up doing more work themselves. These issues are in addition to the ill fortunes of displaced workers…(More)”.