Resisting the rise of the robo-boss

Unions warn British workers need stronger legal protections against “inhuman” AI managers

Artificial intelligence isn’t simply about bosses replacing wage-hungry human workers: it’s about controlling those who still hang on to a job, writes Mark Cantrell

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

TECHNOLOGY is often hailed as the great liberator, but that’s not necessarily the case for those of us who depend on work to survive — most of us, in other words. So, it becomes a question of who is being liberated?

Thanks to automation and AI, swathes of the workforce — including many middle class, white collar professionals — face the prospect of being ‘liberated’ from their jobs in the years and decades to come.

It’s not just a matter of ‘culling’ human workers from employment and replacing them with machines, however. As the experience of Amazon warehouse staff and drivers illustrates, technological trends also point towards efforts to ‘automate’ the human — to subsume them into the machine systems like some kind of capitalist-serving Borg collective.

Technology may not be our enemy, per se; it’s not our friend either. As the cliché goes it’s a tool, but how it’s used — and to whose benefit — is shaped by unequal economic and political power dynamics as old (or older) than the Spinning Jenny and steam-powered looms.

Harnessing technology to improve economic activity and liberate people from the drudgery of work, without ‘liberating’ them from the livelihood of employment is an age-old struggle, then.

The story goes that new technological innovation breeds new kinds of jobs; more fulfilling, better paid than the old, so the temporary upset eventually gives way to better conditions for everyone. Broadly speaking, that may well be historically true (up to a point), but it’s a bitter experience for those who endure the disruption, if they are simply cast aside and left to ‘sink or swim’.

There’s nothing new in bosses harnessing new technologies to increase the productivity of their workforce, whilst driving down the value of their labour — read wages — at the same time. Likewise, there’s a long history of worker’s resisting this descent into grinding toil and heartless penury.

Often, they’re labelled Luddites for their sins, but is it really so backwards to demand that technology serve the fulfilment of human life and living, rather than simply grind it into some kind of abject and enforced ‘obsolescence’?

We’re not talking about technology, though; not really. We’re talking about who owns and controls the means of production, exchange, and distribution. We’re talking the social relations inherent to a particular form of economic organisation, and the requirements this creates for its ongoing maintenance. We’re talking class struggle, in other words.

Such talk is coming to the fore more often these days, although it’s still far from fashionable. Discussing class remains something of a faux pas, but it has never really gone away. It can’t, given our political economy is so rooted, but class struggle has many tools at its disposal, and takes many forms.

Lawful defence

EARLIER this year, in a UK context, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) raised the question of whether the law can safeguard workers against the encroachment of human-automating technologies, where it can’t (yet) dispense with humans entirely.

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

Evidently — and perhaps this should come as no surprise — employment law is lagging behind the developments in technology. It was ever thus, but behind any such legislation is a long process of campaigning and resistance to get the legislative wheels turning. Again, that’s something as old as capitalism itself.

Think of the long struggles of industrial workers in the 19th Century, culminating in various factory acts to limit working hours, reduce child labour, establish weekends off, and more. Carry this through to the 20th century, with efforts to impose legally-bound standards to establish humane employment conditions, and we might see these as points of détente in an ongoing ‘cold war’ between capital and labour.

But today’s digital technology is like nothing that has ever come before. Can it be ‘tamed’ to the same degree by similar strides in the progress of social justice? That remains to be seen, but it won’t — or perhaps we should say mustn’t — be for the want of trying.

In a sense the future of our society is up for grabs. Will it be humane and geared towards people and planet, or will it be bound to the machines — both institutional and technological — in the service of a handful of billionaires and oligarchs? A totalitarianism surely beckons; one that may well hold us firm until the end of our days as a civilisation and as a species, if we’re not careful.

Little wonder that the TUC chose to warn that we stand at a crossroads, when it published its report, Technology Managing People 2021, although it is doubtful the organisation had such profound stakes in mind.

Fear the norm

AI is a particular source of concern, operating — as it does so often — behind the scenes. Unobserved, it casts its judgemental gaze over the workforce, and issues its decrees according to the arcane mysteries of some pre-ordained algorithm.

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

Whether it’s measuring people’s performance or deciding who to hire or fire, it builds a firewall around human agency. Accountability does not compute, unless forced by the intervention of our intent.

“This is a fork in the road,” warned TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. “AI at work could be used to improve productivity and working lives. But it is already being used to make life-changing decisions about people at work — like who gets hired and fired.

“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.

“Every worker must have the right to have AI decisions reviewed by a human manager. And workplace AI must be harnessed for good — not to set punishing targets and rob workers of their dignity.”

The report was produced by employment rights lawyers Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters from the AI Law Consultancy. They warn that without new legal protections, workers will become increasingly vulnerable and powerless to challenge “inhuman” forms of AI performance management.

Put another way, it means that bosses will be able to exert unprecedented levels of control over people’s working lives — to the detriment, too, of their personal and family lives — through the proxy of ‘neutral’ AI management systems.

Naturally, such ‘performance enhancing’ systems demand ever greater scrutiny — surveillance — and ever-more detailed measurements, to drive compliance to ever-tighter ‘performance’ targets.

Such technologies include the use of AI to determine the selection of candidates for interview, the day-to-day line management of employees, performance ratings, shift allocation, and also deciding who is disciplined or made redundant.

What’s more, the TUC says that AI-powered technologies are already being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice, and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles. The report also highlights how AI is being used by employers to analyse team dynamics and personality types when making restructuring decisions.

The capacity for abuse is practically built in, the TUC warns: AI could lead to work schedules becoming pushed to the limits of human endurance. The technology also brings with it the threat of greater isolation, insecurity, and it poses questions around fairness. There’s also the prospect of discrimination to contend with.

So, you’d better just hope the AI deems you the ‘right type’ worthy of keeping their livelihood…

Fear, you might say, drives a hard bargain. Woe betide those who can’t keep up in this brave new world, or who otherwise ‘fail’ to match the algorithmically generated template setting out the ‘ideal worker’.

Human touch

MANAGING people comes with a lot of baggage.

Human life is a messy affair: people come with emotions, a complex internal life. They have bodily needs, family responsibilities, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and anxieties. They get fatigued. Their health fluctuates. They have their ups and downs, their little quirks and eccentricities too.

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

Inevitably, it takes a little bit of give and take (although how much has always varied on how draconian any given managerial structure or business is in practice). Little wonder, then, that some take the view management is as much art as science, but try telling that to an AI.

As one worker in the TUC’s report noted, their working life had become “increasingly robotic, alienating, monotonous and lonely”. Another said “going to work is not enjoyable any more as you are scrutinised and watched over constantly”.

All told it’s about power; profit, yes, but also control, but how much of it will prove hubristic illusion?

Businesses, too, will likely feel the effect of this totalitarian impulse rendered into AI. They are, after all, the sum of their people and those in charge rely utterly on those who do the work.

For those at the top, the rank and file might well be considered an expandable resource, but ultimately no amount of AI will be able to insulate the business’s necessary ‘social economy’ from the resentment, suspicion, and insecurities such systems will inevitably breed within every rank and department.

Ironically, if these systems can be said to represent an attempt to suppress class struggle, they will likely only serve to fuel it. What goes around comes around.

So, what did the TUC’s earlier report find? Well, it reported that:

  • One in seven (15%) of workers taking part in the research said that monitoring and surveillance at work has increased since Covid-19
  • Six in 10 (60%) said that unless carefully regulated, using technology to make decisions about people at work could increase unfair treatment in the workplace
  • Fewer than one in three (31%) said they are consulted when any new forms of technology are introduced
  • More than half of workers (56%) said introducing new technologies to monitor the workplace damages trust between workers and employers
  • The study also claimed that a third (33%) of those employed on insecure contracts feel that they have their activities at work monitored at all times

“Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic as employers have grappled with increased remote working,” the TUC’s O’Grady said of these findings. “Big companies are investing in intrusive AI to keep tabs on their workers, set more demanding targets — and to automate decisions about who to let go. And it’s leading to increased loneliness and monotony.

“Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI, and be protected from punitive ways of working. Nobody should have their livelihood taken away by an algorithm. As we emerge from this crisis, tech must be used to make working lives better.”

The TUC’s Technology Managing People 2021 report represented a call for action to resist this descent into techno-totalitarianism, with legal reforms designed to protect the rights of workers and promote the “ethical use” of AI. These reforms include:

  • A legal duty on employers to consult trade unions on the use of “high risk” and intrusive forms of AI in the workplace
  • A legal right for all workers to have a human review of decisions made by AI systems so they can challenge decisions that are unfair and discriminatory
  • Amendments to the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR) and Equality Act to guard against discriminatory algorithms
  • A legal right to ‘switch off’ from work so workers can create “communication free” time in their lives

Alongside the report the TUC also published a short manifesto for the “fair and transparent” use of AI at work. The organisation says it wants to encourage political parties, employers and tech companies to sign up it and to work with the union movement on improving the regulation of AI technology.

“The TUC is right to call for urgent legislative changes to ensure that workers and companies can both enjoy the benefits of AI,” said Robin Allen QC. “Used properly, AI can change the world of work for good. Used in the wrong way it can be exceptionally dangerous.

“There are currently huge gaps in British law when it comes to regulating AI at work. They must be plugged quickly to stop workers from being discriminated against and mistreated.

“Already important decisions are being made by machines. Accountability, transparency and accuracy need to be guaranteed by the legal system through the carefully crafted legal reforms we propose.

“There are clear red lines, which must not be crossed if work is not to become dehumanised.”

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

For its part, the employers’ ‘union’ the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) defended AI for its potential to transform the workplace, but added there was an inherent matter of public trust that meant businesses need to work with employees.

“AI has the potential to transform the workplace, by automating repetitive tasks and giving employees more time to focus on decision-making, creativity and customer service,” said Felicity Burch, the CBI’s director of innovation and digital.

“But it can also be used to make decisions that could be life-changing, from job interviews to informing performance reviews so it’s therefore crucial that the right legal framework is in place from employment law to data protection.

“To help build public trust businesses must continue to engage employees closely, invest in the right governance processes and embed a culture of lifelong learning.”

Fine sentiments, no doubt, but the direction we take as a society won’t be determined by PR pitches — whether those of the CBI or the TUC, or indeed big tech firms — but by ordinary people both as workers and consumers actively resisting the controlling impulses of businesses large and small.

The TUC’s research forecasts that the AI recruitment market is set to be worth nearly $400 million by 2027, so there is clearly an appetite for the technology, regardless of sentiments around trust, fair play and human decency. The machine won’t be stopped by appealing to its better nature; no, nor the conscience of its creators.

There’s nothing new in working people struggling collectively for humane working conditions and the right to a life beyond the overseer’s gaze. This is just the latest chapter in an age-old story. We’re not doomed to assimilation. Resistance isn’t always futile.

MC

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Mark Cantrell

Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at tykewriter.wordpress.com