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21 September 2021updated 22 Sep 2021 9:10am

Anthony Painter: AI must empower workers, not demoralise them

The growing agency of artificial intelligence means policymakers and businesses must keep up to ensure technology liberates employees.

By Anthony Painter

Every worker has discovered the fundamental nature of their relationship to work over the past 18 months. Desk workers have become remote workers, a positive change for many – or for those without children or insatiable extroversion, at least. Key workers have become stressed, demoralised and overloaded. Many precarious workers – those in insecure and unprotected jobs – were furloughed, provided they had considerate employers or the suitable work history, if self-employed.

Increasingly, these relationships with work are mediated through technology in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Technology is not just something we buy and use, or a tool that helps us – it defines our whole relationship with work.

And like most intelligent agents – anything that can learn, use knowledge and work autonomously to achieve a goal – technology distributes benefits and costs in a far from even manner. The question for any worker is the degree to which they are aided by artificial intelligence, versus the degree to which they work in service of the technology itself.

For creative workers, this means their success is increasingly determined by the extent to which they can market themselves through networking platforms. This is not only achieved through the quality of the services and goods they offer but through the ability to tune into mood, sub-culture, popular aesthetics and topics of interest.

Remote – soon to be hybrid – desk workers enjoy far greater autonomy thanks to the discovery that we can work from home without productivity collapsing. Such workers are served by AI systems as their every need – from making new professional connections to career development – will be increasingly honed by algorithms. Their domestic microclimate will even be optimised for comfort and concentration. Their biggest challenge will be switching off their emails. And they had better hope that their demographic, identity or social media history does not raise red flags for employers and clients because AI technologies will soon surface these.

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Key workers, such as those in health and social care and the food retail sector, also face different future work scenarios. For some, it will mean micromanagement of their time and output. For those working for more enlightened employers, it could mean a new era of organisational support for well-being as they are given new tools to better understand and manage their stress levels.

What all these possibilities mean in practice is that far more attention needs to be given to the way in which work is shaped by AI, in policy, in workplaces and in public discussion. As the Royal Society of Arts’ Future of Work programme has argued, the current social contract – including regulation, organisational approaches and access to training and career development – is inadequate.

From creative to key workers, and desk to precarious workers, different challenges present themselves. We have quite a way to go to properly ensure that artificial intelligence in the workplace is emancipating rather than demoralising. This is where enormous attention should be focused.

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Anthony Painter is the Royal Society of Arts’ chief research and impact officer.

This article originally appeared in our issue The Future of Work: AI and Automation.