Is it Ethical to Automate Your Own Remote Job and Still Get Paid?

A programmer was able to automate his remote job; collecting a full-time paycheck while working for two hours a week. The employer, none the wiser, is satisfied with the completed work. But is it ethical?

Is it ethical to get paid for 40 hours a week when only working two?

Such was the dilemma faced by a programmer who was able to automate his remote job six months ago, with his employer being none the wiser and pleased with the results. This situation, as first posted on The Workplace Q&A message board, brings forth difficult issues of transparency, what modern employees should be paid for (results-versus-time), and whether we are all automatable in the near future.

This comes on the heels of a situation last year where a programmer allegedly automated his work with a well-known tech company for six years, collecting upwards of $95,000 a year until he was finally fired. So, what about the current situation of remote worker (posted on The Workplace) who was able to automate his job?

"I’ve basically figured out all the traps to the point where I’ve actually written a program which for the past 6 months has been just doing the whole thing for me. So what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes to clean the spreadsheet and run it through the program...Now the problem is, do I tell them? If I tell them, they will probably just take the program and get rid of me."-The Workplace message board

 “The quick answer is, No, I don’t think he's doing anything unethical," says John C. Havens, mentioning that employers tend not to go through the same tortured ethical qualms when eliminating workers through automation. The employee, in this specific situation, is doing what he has been contracted to do.

Havens is the Executive Director of the IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems, along with the author of Heartifical Intelligence: Embracing Our Humanity to Maximize Machines. The mission of the IEEE Global Initiative is "to ensure every technologist is educated, trained, and empowered to prioritize ethical considerations in the design and development of autonomous and intelligent systems." [His comments are his personal opinion, however, and not official stances of the IEEE.] 

“Would I feel guilty if I was that person? Yes," adds Havens, who points out an ideal scenario where a more transparent employee could reach a profit-sharing agreement with their employer from the created efficiency (the automation). “The irony is what the guy is obviously talented at is creating programs that will automate things.” The best situation, according to Havens, would be one in which the employee was paid for his algorithm. Other commentators online dinged the employee for his lack of transparency, and intentionally inserting bugs into the programming in order to make it appear more human. Havens is clear that intentionally inserting bugs in order to deceive would certainly be considered unethical behavior.

When speaking with Havens, I wondered if the story of a human automating his job and still getting paid resonated as a "Revenge of the Humans" type narrative against an "Automation is Coming" backdrop. When I suggested this to Havens, he conveyed that any feeling of sweet revenge against automation would be short lived. Citing Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots, Havens asserts that as soon as a robot or system can do a job, which applies to a vast majority of positions, it will be automated. 

“We still live, by and large, in a GDP society where shareholder value is prioritized," says Havens, who points to our economic structure created in the wake of World War II as being misaligned with the modern economy. “Capitalism often gets mixed in with exponential capitalism, and that’s where there is a problem.” 

“As long as GDP is the primary metric of value, then exponential growth is always going to be what people prioritize. You cannot prioritize exponential growth and human well being.”-John C. Havens

There is a tension between the business interests and human interests, where the cold hard calculations of exponential capitalism would dictate near-full automation with little thought given to its impact on society. "There is no business justification to not automate everything...Everything is being automated that can be," says Havens.

What about when people say, “that job will NOT be automated?”

 “That is only wistful speculation.”


Want to connect? Reach out @TechEthicist and on Facebook. Exploring the ethical, legal, and emotional impact of social media & tech. Co-host of the live show/podcast, Funny as Tech.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

10 books to check out from Jordan Peterson's 'Great Books' list

The Canadian professor has an extensive collection posted on his site.

Jordan Peterson with Carl Jung and the cover art of Jaak Panksepp's 'Affective Neuroscience' (Image: Chris Williamson/Getty Images/Big Think)
Personal Growth
  • Peterson's Great Books list features classics by Orwell, Jung, Huxley, and Dostoevsky.
  • Categories include literature, neuroscience, religion, and systems analysis.
  • Having recently left Patreon for "freedom of speech" reasons, Peterson is taking direct donations through Paypal (and Bitcoin).
Keep reading Show less

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less

Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

Keep reading Show less