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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Automation, work and the achievement gap

Danaher, J., Nyholm, S. 
AI Ethics (2020). 


Rapid advances in AI-based automation have led to a number of existential and economic concerns. In particular, as automating technologies develop enhanced competency, they seem to threaten the values associated with meaningful work. In this article, we focus on one such value: the value of achievement. We argue that achievement is a key part of what makes work meaningful and that advances in AI and automation give rise to a number achievement gaps in the workplace. This could limit people’s ability to participate in meaningful forms of work. Achievement gaps are interesting, in part, because they are the inverse of the (negative) responsibility gaps already widely discussed in the literature on AI ethics. Having described and explained the problem of achievement gaps, the article concludes by identifying four possible policy responses to the problem.



Achievement is an important part of the well-lived life. It is the positive side of responsibility. Where we blame ourselves and others for doing bad things, we also praise ourselves for achieving positive (or value neutral) things. Achievement is particularly important when it comes to meaningful work. One of the problems with widespread automation is that it threatens to undermine at least three of the four main conditions for achievement in the workplace: it can reduce the value of work tasks; reduce the cost of committing to those work tasks; and sever the causal connection between human effort and workplace outcome. This opens up ‘achievement gaps’ in the workplace. There are, however, some potential ways to manage the threat of achievement gaps: we can focus on other aspects of meaningful work; we can find some ways to retain the human touch in the production of workplace outputs; we can emphasise the importance of teamwork in producing valuable outputs; and we can find outlets for achievement outside of the workplace.