How sustainable is automation?

It’s no big secret that the products you use and the services you benefit from are increasingly the result of automated processes from the factory to the home. What most do not consider are the societal, environmental and economical impacts of automation and how it can affect goals related to sustainable development. Where lies the balance between an automated world and a sustainable one?

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Sustainability is a complex world. The UCLA Sustainability Committee updated Brundtland’s definition as “the physical development and institutional operating practices that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, particularly with regard to use and waste of natural resources. Sustainable practices support ecological, human, and economic health and vitality. Sustainability presumes that resources are finite, and should be used conservatively and wisely with a view to long-term priorities and consequences of the ways in which resources are used.”

In 2016, the folks over at Automation World posed the question “What happened to Sustainability?” It was a comment on the public attention to sustainability programs for manufacturers. On the one hand, the implementation of sustainability could have fizzled – on the other – concepts of sustainability were already embedded in their manufacturing processes and there was nothing new to talk about. A survey of their readers proved the latter to be true.

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The research paper, “Social Aspects of Automation: Some Critical Insights” highlighted how automation will affect our society using indicators. The study was done using the “Circles of Sustainability” approach in which four dimensions of sustainability are considered: ecology, economics, politics and culture. The difference between the triple bottom line and the “Circles of Sustainability” approach lies within dividing social aspects into politics and culture. Figure 2 shows the subdomains selected for the scope of the study.

There’s no denying that an influx of automated processes have considerable energy demands. A study referenced in the paper illustrated that energy consumption could be optimized using the technology itself to incorporate intelligent energy efficient trajectory planning, where scheduling of automation can reduce energy demand. Environmental concerns are tied to energy consumption since electricity is the main source of energy for automation.

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Perhaps the biggest concern with increased use of automation is the loss of jobs – the most used example being automated Uber or Waymo vehicles will no longer need drivers. The study made a point to note that “there is a consensus that automation is a ‘job killer’ for repetitive simple tasks and ‘job creating technology’ for everything beyond that.” An algorithm from other research measured the probability of automation dependent on perception and manipulation, creative intelligence and social intelligence. The breakdown was as follows: Engineering jobs were at minimal risk of loss due to automation, while logistics and transportation jobs had decreased opportunity due to automation (as expected – think Uber). Finally, jobs in the service sector fell into the high-risk category for losses. These risk-based profiles lead into social issues related to wealth generation and distribution. With the increased lack of jobs, only certain positions are guaranteed wealth. How will that affect the wage gap? However, the case can be made that with new technologies come new job opportunities that may not have existed previously. Additionally, the use of automation will increase productivity throughout company operations. A great example of this is the driverless tractor for the agriculture industry. In an ideal world, the increased productivity that comes from automation will help companies economically and allow them to open up different opportunities for the jobs that are lost.

The paper asserts that for the most part health and wellbeing are improved through the increase of automation, mainly based on eliminating the risks posed to human life, and reducing exposure for otherwise dangerous job opportunities like welding or underwater operations. However, an increase in energy consumption results in use of resources that generate emissions. Dependent on the source and type, indirect emissions are correlated to health issues.

Regarding Ethics and Accountability, there are many concerns. The paper outlined the most obvious – the lack of human interaction in customer care, general mistrust in robots (thanks Will Smith!) and concerns of privacy, all of which are legitimate concerns. What wasn’t further elaborated but must be considered is the idea that robots or automated machines will have responsibility. Will “they” be faced with moral decisions and how will “they” respond? The paper notes the “lack of human feeling,” but what about that automated Uber you just rode? When faced with a tough decision, will you agree with the events that occur? Would you have made the same choice?

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There are many factors to be considered in the development of new technologies that lead to automation of processes. Further analysis and the use of Life Cycle Assessments of automated products may provide more detail on environmental impacts. Personally, it seems that sustainable solutions could be made for the economical and environmental aspects of automation but the social need more delving into – and not just the technology itself – but the way we as a society will impact the unstoppable rise of automation.

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Valerie Thorsen

Valerie Thorsen

An environmental engineer with a passion in emission reduction and sustainability, particularly in what businesses can do to reduce their impact and provide environmental outreach for their stakeholders.

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