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Monday, July 12, 2021

Workplace automation without achievement gaps: a reply to Danaher and Nyholm

Tigard, D.W. 
AI Ethics (2021). 


In a recent article in this journal, John Danaher and Sven Nyholm raise well-founded concerns that the advances in AI-based automation will threaten the values of meaningful work. In particular, they present a strong case for thinking that automation will undermine our achievements, thereby rendering our work less meaningful. It is also claimed that the threat to achievements in the workplace will open up ‘achievement gaps’—the flipside of the ‘responsibility gaps’ now commonly discussed in technology ethics. This claim, however, is far less worrisome than the general concerns for widespread automation, namely because it rests on several conceptual ambiguities. With this paper, I argue that although the threat to achievements in the workplace is problematic and calls for policy responses of the sort Danaher and Nyholm outline, when framed in terms of responsibility, there are no ‘achievement gaps’.

From the Conclusion

In closing, it is worth stopping to ask: Who exactly is the primary subject of “harm” (broadly speaking) in the supposed gap scenarios? Typically, in cases of responsibility gaps, the harm is seen as falling upon the person inclined to respond (usually with blame) and finding no one to respond to. This is often because they seek apologies or some sort of remuneration, and as we can imagine, it sets back their interests when such demands remain unfulfilled. But what about cases of achievement gaps? If we want to draw truly close analogies between the two scenarios, we would consider the subject of harm to be the person inclined to respond with praise and finding no one to praise. And perhaps there is some degree of disappointment here, but it hardly seems to be a worrisome kind of experience for that person. With this in mind, we might say there is yet another mismatch between responsibility gaps and achievement gaps. Nevertheless, on the account of Danaher and Nyholm, the harm is seen as falling upon the humans who miss out on achieving something in the workplace. But on that picture, we run into a sort of non-identity problem—for as soon as we identify the subjects of this kind of harm, we thereby affirm that it is not fitting to praise them for the workplace achievement, and so they cannot really be harmed in this way.