First produced in The Sunday Business Post 15, July 2018
The World Economic Forum has defined Artificial Intelligence (AI) as an element of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and something which will change our world and workplaces. This is similar to the changes envisaged during the previous industrial revolutions (let's not forget the fears of the Luddites) but what is different now is the pace of change. These changes are fast-approaching and 2018 will be recorded as an important year in the history of AI. However, history repeats itself and these changes are also considered a fast-approaching threat to the livelihoods of many employees.
On 10 April 2018, Ireland, along with 24 other EU Member States, signed the EU Declaration of Cooperation on Artificial Intelligence. This Declaration proves that AI is considered a game-changer in all walks of life. While it doesn't go into specific detail on employment law, the Declaration does acknowledge that Member States agree to cooperate on "addressing socio-economic challenges, such as the transformation of labour markets…". Member States acknowledge that AI can have positive impacts for European citizens when harnessed correctly.
Employment law change will follow too and it is important to address the threat posed by AI that many employees believe is coming. Employment lawyers and the Irish legislature need to consider now how current employment law needs to adapt to harness AI's full potential for Irish businesses and, also, to protect employees. There have already been calls for an Irish AI national strategy encompassing all elements of AI. This is to be welcomed but it must take stock of employment law issues, both the positives and negatives, to be fully comprehensive. While there are threats to livelihoods, we also envisage positives from AI and that AI can help solve some of our current pressing issues as explored in this article.
AI has already changed the recruitment process making it more effective and this will increase rapidly in 2018. 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 important to ensure that Irish employment equality legislation is fit-for-purpose. The current Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 should be considered in any national strategy to ensure that the positives in AI-assisted recruitment do not come at the detriment of employees. AI, if used correctly, can help to eliminate bias in the recruitment process and offers more accessible and cost-efficient options for candidates. This can help increase diversity in the Irish workforce too.
The gender pay gap, and gender equality more generally, can improve with AI too. This can come from recruitment, bonuses, and benefits being tracked by technology to accurately identify gender pay gaps. This has the potential to defeat any latent bias in an organisation and can stand to also defeat the issues identified following the first deadline of UK gender pay gap reporting. Irish legislation is likely to be implemented in 2018 and we must learn from failures identified in the UK experience before implementation. Any national strategy on AI should consider these potential positives.
The use of technology has the potential to help employees with disabilities remain in or return to the workforce more easily than before. AI can help employers honour their legislative responsibilities and perhaps assist with reasonably accommodating employees more cost-effectively. Existing legislation should be reviewed to allow for greater connection between employees and technology including potentially, the need for employers to offer education as part of accommodation following serious illness or accident.
There has been much discussion recently on the relationship between the various generations in Irish workplaces. Flexibility in the workplace is 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 of these generations to work in harmony. AI, implemented correctly, has the potential to help Irish employers to solve these issues and to allow greater harmony between generations working together. For example, by allowing all generations to be more flexible in their working patterns, giving 'millennials' the flexibility they desire, while allowing older generations the opportunity to work from home comfortably.
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. Although, like the previous industrial revolutions this change seems apocalyptic, as discussed above AI can be used as a positive tool to help solve some of Ireland's current employment law issues but we all must act now to harness that potential. An Irish AI national strategy complimenting the recently signed EU Declaration gives us that perfect chance to harness that potential.