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Only the ethical need apply

In the heavily automated workplace of the future, a keen sense of right and wrong will become a highly valued job skill.

By Susan Llewelyn LeachStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2005

The "great global brain drain" is how futurist Richard Samson describes it. As the century progresses, he predicts, more and more jobs will be sucked up by technology and sophisticated computers, forcing humans to hone skills machines can't duplicate - at least not yet.

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Qualities such as ethical judgment, compassion, intuition, responsibility, and creativity will be what stand out in an automated world.

With ethics issues spiking into the news almost weekly, the idea of a work world in which individual ethical acumen is viewed as an essential job skill is far from outlandish. The signs are already here.

Wall Street is toying with the idea of creating an ethical code of conduct. CEOs are getting fired for unethical behavior, even when it doesn't damage the company's bottom line.

At Boeing, former CEO Harry Stonecipher was hired with a specific mandate to strengthen company ethics - and then was fired when his personal ethical code fell short.

What Mr. Samson suggests is that this focus on ethics will intensify as technology takes up more of the routine work tasks. Signs of "off-peopling" - his shorthand for human workers being replaced by computers - are widespread.

Software systems help you do your own check-out at the supermarket and your own check-in at the airline counter. Virtual attendants answer many customer-service phones. Internet sales require no human interaction. And you don't need a travel agent to book your holiday anymore.

But while artificial intelligence can perform numerous job functions, it brings no ethical considerations to bear on the tasks performed - a skill that Samson predicts will actually become more crucial as the world increases its reliance on technology.

It's still a big leap from where we are today to a world in which white-collar, know-how jobs are largely being performed by computers. But Samson proposes that this will happen by century's end and points out that history offers interesting precedent.

In 1900, 40 percent of the American workforce had been laboring in agriculture. A hundred years later, that number shrank to 2 percent. Manufacturing took up a lot of the slack until mid-century, when its numbers started to decline, too.

Now service-sector jobs offer the bulk of employment in the United States and run the gamut from a Starbucks barista to a haircutter to a corporate attorney.

"As computers take over more and more routine cognitive tasks, that will leave humans doing things that can't be automated," says Thomas Malone, author of "The Future of Work" and a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "These new technologies will give us chances to make ethical and other choices in new ways."

But the technological progression doesn't necessarily mean we'll become more ethical, he adds. "Humans are capable of using automated information technology for unethical purposes."

The ripple effect of wrongdoing

What is apparent, however, is that the ripple effect of unethical behavior will become more acute.

"As computer systems make our work increasingly interconnected, so the chance for one unethical or incompetent person to do tremendous damage will increase," says David De Long, author of "Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce."

He cites the collapse in 1995 of Barings Bank brought about by a single rogue trader in Singapore. Even the cascading power blackouts in the US and Canada in August 2003, while not caused by unethical behavior, came down to split-second decisions by a handful of individuals.

That technological interconnectivity is already increasing the importance of human cooperation.