5.6 Summary and Further Discussion

What is called here the second industrial revolution is the process of eliminating human workers and machine operators from the industrial scene by building and deploying devices that are sufficiently general purpose and programmable to operate with little or no human supervision.

The advantages of robotized manufacture are considerable, ranging from ultra-high reliability to lower operating costs, and the ability to redirect assembly lines without either re-tooling or retraining. Commercial advantages include higher quality goods at lower cost in greater variety and the ability to manufacture to individual orders.

The problems generated by the use of robots centre on large-scale displacement of the existing work force. Retraining and replacement are necessary in order to keep unemployment from rising to disruptive levels. Whether concurrent economic changes will be rapid enough to absorb the released workers is not yet known. Certainly, such problems generate ethical issues for those directly involved, as well as for the broader society.

Other factors that may influence future industry are space-based manufacturing and nanotechnology. While both seem poised for near-term breakthroughs, it may be some time before either has a large-scale influence.

Discussion Questions

1. Desk jobs tend to be sedentary, having adverse effects upon general health, increasing the probability of heart disease, hypertension, and obesity. Discuss probable effects on general health of a large increase in the percentage of the population employed at desk jobs.

2. Discuss the probable effects on farming of the second industrial revolution.

3. Defend this thesis: The second industrial revolution will decrease the percentage of the population living in large cities.

4. Now defend the opposite position; use "increase" rather than "decrease."

5. The optimistic view is that despite robotization, underdeveloped countries will catch up to developed nations. Write the most pessimistic scenario and defend it as more realistic.

6. You are the owner of a small snowmobile factory in Quebec that employs about 100 people and is in fact the major employer in your town. These people have nearly all worked for you for more than ten years and are completely dependent on these jobs. You have just learned that your major competitor is about to robotize its factory and will be able to sell snowmobiles for half your retail price. You may either follow suit, laying off 75 employees, or see your business go bankrupt in a year, costing everyone's job. What should you do?

7. What is the likelihood (or unlikelihood) that a "mad engineer" could develop and build an army of robots to conquer the earth? Answer in practical, well-reasoned and well-justified terms, please.

8. In the previous chapter, concern was expressed about the balance between information availability and privacy. The reduced need for people to congregate for work also cuts down on social interaction and promotes individualism. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this aspect of automation.

9. Many believe that people have traditionally found self-worth in their jobs. How will they do this if most people are essentially self-employed, or not employed at all?

10. What effect will there be on pollution in a more highly automated society?

11. In the text, a retraining insurance scheme was suggested. Flesh out this idea to a detailed proposal, complete with appropriate premiums for two or three industries.

12. Attack the suggested retraining scheme and show why it cannot work. Then find another solution for the same problem and show why it is superior economically and/or ethically.

13. Refer to situations like that in question 6. Now discuss carefully the ethical issues involved in job displacement for the worker, employer, and for government.

14. Make a case for transferring all manufacturing off the Earth's surface. What ethical issues are involved? Deal with them in your discussion.

15. Research the "mass driver"--a device for removing raw materials from the Moon to Earth orbit--and discuss its operation and economics in the light of the level of space manufacturing activity you think is likely.

16. Research the arguments for building large-scale habitats in space. Now argue for or against such projects in detail. Address specifically the oft-raised objection that it is unethical to embark on such projects while there are still people who are hungry and in poverty.

17. Write a report summarizing the major potential applications of nanotechnology. How likely do you think each is, and why? What ethical issues need to be addressed?

18. Research the extent to which transportation is now automated. Consider railways and airlines and describe their attempts to automate traffic. Now, propose a way to automate automobile and truck traffic, or argue convincingly that this task is impractical.

19. Suppose that people transport via commuter railways, aeroplanes, and possibly cars could be automated so that no human pilots or drivers were necessary. Ought such technology be implemented if it became available? Why or why not?

20. Re-read the quotation from Stein in section 5.3 on the woman who teaches from her own home. Now list the assumptions about the future society, its politics, and its social norms that Stein makes. Are these assumptions reasonable?

21. Argue for or against (economic, political and ethical grounds) Stein's specific assumption that teaching children from the home via the Metalibrary is such a good idea that it will become commonplace.

22. An industrial robot is being used to move parts from a tray to an assembly line. It is enclosed in a security fence. A technician turns the robot off and enters the fenced area to effect repairs on the assembly line. While she is there, another worker (who does not see her because of the fence) re-activates the robot which moves up against the technician, trapping her against a piece of machinery and crushing her to death. Discuss the degrees of liability here. How much attaches to (1) the technician herself for not shutting off the power at the breaker box and for failing to post the work site, (2) the co-worker who turned the robot back on, (3) the owner of the plant, (4) the builder of the robot, (5) the builder of the fence--intended for protection, but instrumental in the death, (6) society as a whole for not somehow preventing the accident.


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The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises