Power to the humans

Unions can help control the role of automation and AI in workplaces so it enhances employees’ lives rather than harms them.

Technology may see the downfall of human beings as it outpaces our ability to adapt to it, some experts say.

It’s a rather extreme view but the speed of advancement in digitalisation is staggering. Last year an artificial intelligence (AI) system was able to classify skin cancer at a “level of competence comparable to dermatologists”, according to the Artificial Intelligence Index 2017 annual report.

Microsoft and IBM also both achieved performance within close range of “human-parity” speech recognition, the report explains.  

So, there’s one thing few people will dispute: AI, automation, and technology are fields we have to be proactive in shaping and influencing so we don’t become obsolete, especially in the workplace. 

And the time for that is now. 

Displacement of workers

It’s a key message for trade unions, to whom workers may be looking to for positive action so their jobs are not displaced, and their rights protected. 

Fears about jobs disappearing as automation expands were revealed in a survey released this summer by a new Commission on Workers and Technology organised by the trade union Community and the Fabian Society.

Thirty seven per cent of the 1,092 workers surveyed admitted they are worried their job may change for the worse as a result of the impact of technology in the next decade. 

Almost a quarter (23 per cent) are worried their job may no longer be needed in the next 10 years.

On a positive note, a large majority of workers – 73 per cent – are confident they will be able to change and update their skills if new technologies affect their current job. Yet they aren’t so optimistic about trade unions supporting workers through technological change: only 16 per cent of employees with a trade union in their workplace said unions are providing support. 

Roy Rickhuss, General Secretary of Community, said the findings should serve as a wake-up call for all trade unions, also pointing out that automation can’t simply be opposed but should be made to work in the interests of working people.

The two-year commission, headed by Yvette Cooper MP, aims to address how to ensure technology leads to good jobs not “bad” ones; how workers can best be supported in adapting and re-skilling; and how unions, employers and government can work together constructively to progress this issue in a positive way.

Practically, how can unions and employers ensure technology in the workplace doesn’t command an unhealthy amount of power over people?

First and foremost, of course, is maintaining membership levels that give unions a strong voice at employer and governmental level.   

We teach the machines

But going beyond that an interesting question being debated is whether we can actually teach machines to incorporate human rights concerns. Can AI be ethical? Well, yes. And unions can take action to ensure this.

UNI Global Union, which represents more than 20 million workers, is campaigning hard on the issue and urging all unions to follow suit. 

Its 10 Principles for Ethical Artificial Intelligence are based on a fundamental premise that AI systems “must put people and planet first” to ensure human survival. 

The document covers points of action for unions such as demanding systems are transparent; that humans stay in command and in control over machines at all times; that AI is controlled for negative or harmful human bias against gender, race, age, sexual orientation; and that the economic benefits of AI are shared with workers and not just kept in the hands of the corporates. 

It even sets out how an algorithm reflecting ILO conventions such as the right to organise and collective bargaining can actually be built into systems to further protect worker’s rights.

As we continue to develop technology at breakneck speed, the prime message from this call to action is that “there is a definite urgency of now”.

So, while unions, employers and politicians will have to be ambitious and comprehensive in planning for a future where people and machines can learn to co-exist peacefully, they also have to act immediately.