Who is responsible for errors in a factory where no people work?

Industry 4.0 raises new ethical questions. The philosophy of technology provides answers.

What was the problem? Amazon had built up a fundamental gender imbalance in the workplace in the past. Consequently, the AI was only fed CVs of successful male candidates. Any women were deemed unsuitable by the system.

In 2018, Amazon conducted an experiment: they hired new employees using Artificial Intelligence. An algorithm screened applicants in an automated way, thus speeding up the application process.

The system was fed data from successful applicants from previous years. To everyone’s surprise, when the procedure started, not a single female candidate was successful.


AI and responsibility

This blatant form of discrimination reveals a pitfall of the technological advances being made in Industry 4.0. The use of machine learning, neural networking, AI, and automated technology raises new ethical questions. Questions that can be answered by philosophers of technology, says Lode Lauwaert from KU Leuven.

“The stronger the development of autonomous systems, the stronger the question of who is responsible. There are almost completely autonomous factories in existence, where you don’t see a single person on the work floor. If a mistake happens, who is responsible, and why? These aren’t abstract philosophical issues, but concrete, topical, even burning questions - several months ago, the German government granted Mercedes permission to bring an autonomous car onto the market.

Artificial Intelligence offers many possibilities for solving problems. For example, it can detect problems faster, and on a larger scale. That can be crucial in tackling, say, a pandemic. But we must also be aware of the risks in terms of insecurity, privacy, bias, and responsibility.”

Lode Lauwaert

 Lode Lauwaert from KU Leuven

Purple men

Remaining critical is crucial

“Three statements are very popular among entrepreneurs and technologists: technology is neutral; technology is disruptive; and technology is necessary. I believe that we should look critically at each of these three statements. None of them are true. Technology is not by definition neutral, it is not necessarily disruptive, and not necessary tout court.

Technology is always a product of the society in which it is born. A particular technology of one society would simply not be developed in another society that held other norms and values. Think, for example, of the software that Starbucks uses to draw up its workers’ rosters.There is no human intervention involved anymore. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it is only possible within a specific management culture, which is focused on maximum efficiency and savings. That is our culture. That was not the culture of the Middle Ages or non-Western civilizations, which are much less focused on efficiency. I think it is important for people to adopt a critical attitude to their beliefs.”

Industry 4.0

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