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Unregulated AI in workplace risks ‘dehumanisation’, unions warn

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The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has published a report on the use of AI in the workplace, warning that an expansion of the technology could lead to more discriminatory and dehumanising work if not appropriately regulated.

AI is increasingly used by companies to manage their employees in day-to-day tasks, such as in reviewing large numbers of job applications for appropriate candidates, improving productivity, or managing diaries

According to the TUC, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the use of AI in workplaces. A survey carried out in July 2020 found that 42 per cent of businesses in Europe used at least one AI tool and 18 per cent have plans to adopt them in the next two years.

Critics have raised concerns about irresponsible use of AI tools in workplaces for many years. For instance, it is well recognised that AI algorithms replicate human biases present in training data; for instance, an experimental AI recruitment tool had to be shut down in 2018 after it was found to discriminate against female candidates. AI tools in the workplace can penalise ethnic minorities, judge people by their facial expression or the ‘sentiment’ of their writing, and crudely rank employee performance.

“Used properly, AI can change the world of work for good. Used in the wrong way, it can be exceptionally dangerous,” said the authors of the report, employment lawyers Robin Allen and Dee Masters. “There are clear red lines, which must not be crossed if work is not to become dehumanised.”

The report pointed at gaps in British law which could allow for the technology to be deployed unethically. For instance, employees could be kept in the dark about their employer implementing AI tools which affect their work and compensation, and left without a practical means of challenging decisions made using these tools. The law is failing to keep pace with the rapid expansion of AI in workplaces, the TUC said.

Professor Jeremias Adams-Prassl, a University of Oxford expert on the future of work, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “Technology moves so fast that trying to regulate it with a law, as such, will be nearly impossible. The key advantage of social dialogue […] is that it’s a super-flexible approach.”

The TUC report warned that unless new legal protections are implemented, employees will become increasingly powerless to challenge AI forces in the workplace.

It recommended that – rather than delay until regulations are updated – employers should consult with their staff via union representation before introducing AI tools which could affect pay and key work decisions. The report also suggested giving employees the right to have humans review any automated decisions and to have the right to “switch off” at work.

“This is a fork in the road,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. “Without fair rules, the use of AI at work could lead to widespread discrimination and unfair treatment, especially for those in insecure work and the gig economy.”

Andrew Pakes, director of communications and research at union Prospect, said: “Over the last year, we have seen an acceleration in digital technology with one in five companies already using surveillance to monitor workers or planning to do so. Workers need to know when they are being monitored, they need to be consulted on the introduction of this technology, and there has to be transparency so that decisions made by algorithms or on the back of this data can be challenged.”

The government said it would ensure that regulations meet the needs of emerging technologies and that it has appointed an independent committee of experts (the Regulatory Horizons Council) to provide it with advice on the rapid and safe introduction of these technologies.

“[AI] should be used to support workers and wider society, making working lives easier and more efficient. We are committed to ensuring government regulation meets the needs of new technology,” a government spokesperson said in a statement.

Meanwhile, reports have emerged that Amazon delivery drivers in the US are being forced to sign “biometric consent” forms to continue working for the company. This would require them to consent to the collection of data from various forms of surveillance equipment in their vehicle, used to monitor the efficiency and safety of their driving.

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