Responsible Innovation and the Future of work: Rethinking justice and capital in the age of autonomous technologies

Info about the authors 

Names: Filippo Santoni de Sio ( corresponding), Assistant Professor Ethics of Technology; Jeroen van den Hoven, Full Professor Ethics of Technology Affiliation: Delft University of Technology, Section Ethics/Philosophy of Technology 

Division: Humanities 


Responsible Innovation and the Future of work: Rethinking justice and capital in the age of autonomous technologies 

There is hardly a social issue that is receiving more attention than the impact of digital technologies on the future of work. A large part of that attention goes into gauging probabilities and estimations of the impact on the level and quality of employment. Many claim that we should not overestimate the novelty of this revolution: human adaptability and flexibility will eventually adjust the system by creating new jobs in new sectors, as it happened with the previous industrial and technological revolutions. Other insist that there actually is something intrinsically new in the current AI and autonomous technology revolution (Brynjolfsson and MacAfee), which requires society to take new forms of political actions. In line with the latter position, we believe that the current technological revolution presents some unprecedented features, and that if not properly governed, it may dramatically affect the level of employment, the quality of work, the distribution of resources and power, and ultimately the quality of many people’s life in the world. Therefore, rather than just waiting for the revolution to do its course, in the hope that it will eventually turn out to be beneficial to the many, we rather propose to actively building a society in which, notwithstanding, or even thanks to, the increasing presence of autonomous systems, people have the means to both make their living and to live a good life; one in which they are free from the threats of poverty but also from the wielding of oppression, exploitations and domination; while at the same time having the freedom and capacity to enjoy the personal satisfaction as well as the social recognition for engaging in some activity which they consider as worth pursuing. We believe that a strong and systematic approach is needed, one that takes the novelty of the current digital and robotic revolution seriously and does not simply rely on new variations on old political or economic recipes. In this sense, we claim that even unprecedented policies of redistribution of income such as Universal Basic Income may not be the right answer to these new challenges.  To be sure, our idea is not new, and some interesting proposals in this direction have already been done (e.g. Ford 2015). However, as we argue, we currently still lack a solid general theoretical framework to support such proposals. Sketching such a general conceptual framework is the main goal of this paper. We identify three theoretical obstacles to the creation a general framework to create a just technological society, and we correspondingly start identifying three ways to overcome these obstacles.  The first obstacle, in our view, is the virtual absence of conscious choice in decisions that affect the direction of technology and innovation, and the lack of a theoretical framework that could guide us in deciding how technological developments and innovations should be  judged and guided in order to be beneficial to society. ‘By default’, technological development is determined by the conventional theoretical and practical factors that drive societal developments today, viz. (cost-)efficiency and productivity as pushed by big economic players; but that needs reconsideration, also in the light of the specific properties of the new digital technologies. We advocate a Responsible Innovation approach, in which decisions regarding the design, development and introduction of (autonomous) technologies are reached through a deliberate societal judgement explicitly governed by a broader set of individual and societal values.  The second obstacle is the lack of systematic reflection on which theory of social justice should be adopted by a Responsible Innovation approach, in order for it to effectively tackle the challenges of the “second machine age”. We invite to go beyond a broadly Rawlsian approach to social justice simply based on the reduction of (unjustified) wealth inequities via a redistribution of income or other generically defined “primary goods”. We propose to look at two alternative existing approaches, both critical of Rawls approach, which point to what, as we argue, would be two essential elements of a just technological society: the first is Michael Walzer’s idea of “spheres of justice”, according to which social justice can be achieved only by preserving the specific goals and values of different social practices; and the second is the idea of the development of human capacities or capabilities as the ultimate end of social and political action, which can be found, at least in part, in Amartya Sen’s “capability approach”.  The third obstacle is the lack of (theoretical) economic underpinnings for a society that is able to govern the development and use of technology in a responsible, and more specifically, in a just way. Such underpinnings, we suggest, require a reconsideration of the task of the economy and especially of the role of capital in society. In currently dominant economic theory, capital and technology support the growth of material goods and welfare. In the approach outlined in this paper, capital and technology would also support the further development of other (non-material) goods and values, as well as of human capacities.  Word count: 825