Artificial Intelligence or AI is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perceptions, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages". The term is defined in popular culture, and in the eyes of employees the world over, as an ever-approaching threat. The World Economic Forum has discussed AI as a major element of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and something which will rapidly change our world and workplaces. Regardless of the definition, AI is coming into our workplaces and coming quickly.
As with any change to workplaces, employment law will follow. Employment lawyers and the Irish legislature need to consider how current employment law in Ireland may need to adapt to harness the full potential of AI for Irish businesses and, also, to protect employees. William Fry will investigate these issues in a series of articles in 2018, exploring how modern Irish workforces will be changed by AI and will analyse the employment law issues connected with these changes. This introductory article to the series focuses on the potential positives of AI in helping to solve some of Ireland's current employment law issues.
AI has already changed the recruitment process making it more effective. Such change will most likely increase rapidly. As this continues to develop, and perhaps reach the stage where the first stages in a recruitment process have little human interaction, it will be crucially important to ensure that Irish employment equality legislation is still respected. This includes programming the technology early on to respect the nine equality grounds and fixing any latent bias in technology. Of course, AI might also help employers to be more diverse in their recruitment process allowing candidates who fit criteria but who failed to reach interview stage because of a previous latent bias to overcome those hurdles.
The gender pay gap and gender equality more generally, can stand to improve from the rise of robots too. This can come from recruitment as discussed above to bonuses, benefits and even pay being tracked by technology to actual output by employees. This has the potential to defeat any latent bias in an organisation and can stand to also defeat the sort of issues identified as a result of the first deadline of UK gender pay gap reporting. We identified in a recent article that the Irish legislature and Irish employers need to learn from the lessons of the UK before final gender pay gap reporting legislation is adopted in Ireland. Making use of technology to accurately track pay in companies and then accurately report would provide better and more real data and help companies identify problems in their companies and seek to fix those problems more effectively.
The use of technology in harmony with human work can open new doors to helping employees with disabilities remain in or return to the workforce more easily than before. This would also help employers to honour their legislative responsibilities more easily than before and perhaps assist with reasonably accommodating more cost-effectively. Existing legislation could be reviewed to allow for greater connection between employees and technology including perhaps the need for employers to offer education as part of accommodation following serious illness or accident.
There has been much discussion recently on the future relationship between the various generations in Irish workplaces. Flexibility in the workplace has become a critical issue for younger generations, while legislation has adapted to enable Irish workers to remain in the workplace longer with a corresponding need for employers to respect active aging. We will soon have a generation of employees who have grown up forever connected to technology. All of this poses challenges for employers practically and for the legislature in providing legislation to seek to enable all these generations to work in harmony. AI, implemented correctly, has the potential to help Irish employers to solve these issues and to allow a greater harmony between generations working together.
The adaption of AI by Irish businesses is likely to have far-reaching impacts for the employment relationship. A point of discussion is how disruptive technology will become in the workplace and whether it will eventually replace humans as employees or create more jobs. Recent studies have often concluded that AI will eventually have a neutral, if not positive, impact on jobs (including 'The economic impact of artificial intelligence on Ireland's economy', PwC, November 2017). However, in the first years as companies adapt to the changing landscape, certain roles may become redundant as they are replaced in the most part by technology. The challenge for the Irish legislature and employers here is to prepare for this change in advance and perhaps redefine the current understanding of alternative roles by offering employees at risk of redundancy upskilling programmes to retrain for newly created roles.
AI is concerning for Irish employees and Irish employers alike and will carry heavy financial and social costs in the early years of adaptation. However, like the previous industrial revolutions, 4IR will begin to rapidly change workplace cultures and, as employees and employers adapt to this changing culture, new employment law issues will emerge. Like many others, we see these issues coming to the fore in 2018 and in the next few years. As we have explored in this article, AI can also be used as a positive tool to help solve some of our current employment law issues but we all must act now to harness that potential.