What the heck is going on with AI at the moment? Yes, I know it's been around for ages but it’s attracted more headlines in the last few weeks than Harry Styles and Gwyneth Paltrow put together (ok – maybe not Gwyneth Paltrow but it may well be giving Harry Styles a run for his money right now). Italy has banned ChatCPT, Elon Musk has called for a pause on the development of AI, last week the government published its AI White Paper and, this week, the TUC has held a conference specifically dedicated to the implications of AI in the workplace.
The White Paper sets out how the UK government proposes to regulate the use of AI. Unlike the EU, which is bringing forward an AI Act, the approach set out in the White Paper indicates that the UK won't, at this stage, be pursuing a legislative approach - rather existing regulators such as the Information Commissioner's Office, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Health and Safety will be expected to address the issues raised by AI within their remit through guidance.
This doesn't mean that there is no relevant legislation to protect individuals. Existing employment laws offer some protection. For example, the use of one way video interviews in recruitment processes could leave employers exposed to disability discrimination claims if the AI software isn't programmed to make allowances for people with certain disabilities. Equally employers need to be careful not to breach the implied contractual duty of trust and confidence in their use of AI. How adaptable existing laws will be in terms of accommodating new issues that the use of AI will inevitably throw up remains to be seen – will an employer be able to establish fairness where they have used AI to justify selection decisions in redundancy exercises for example?
But leaving law and regulation aside, how might employers react to the onward march of AI? Let's face it, the genie is out of the bottle and is thoroughly enjoying itself. But that needn't be a bad thing. Used responsibly AI can be a force for good and for the proactive People leader, there is a real opportunity to unlock the potential of AI in a positive way for your workforce. So where to begin?
Understand how and where your business uses AI
- you may know how you use AI in your recruitment processes but do you know how it is being used, at an operational level, across the business and what impact it might be having on your people? Are roles changing as time-saving tools are introduced? Is autonomy being sacrificed as an algorithm instructs your team member on what to do? Are projects being allocated by machine rather than by line manager? None of this is to suggest you should reject the use of AI but is there a need to pause for thought to consider how you are preparing your people, psychologically as well as technically, for these changes as you might with other types of change programme?
Look out for small-scale changes
- the roll-out of largescale AI technologies may well involve the People team but many AI programmes touch on only limited elements of a person's role. This means their introduction may be seen as purely operational so you may not know they are being used. Many programmes, ChatGPT being one example, are easily accessible online. Might your managers be instructing their teams to make use of these tools, in a bid to improve efficiency, without thinking through the people implications or the potential risk to the business of confidential information being shared by employees?
Agree within your business which teams will 'own' AI and how you will communicate
- AI is often seen as an IT issue or it may sit with procurement or innovation teams. Rarely will the People team be routinely consulted when new AI is being introduced. Bringing in the People team to contribute to the business case for any new AI solutions should be built in to the procurement process as should understanding the provenance of the AI technology.
Encourage your Board to engage
- whether it's concerns around the impact AI might have on your people or the inadvertent leaking of confidential information through using AI programmes, the use of AI has serious consequences for organisations. With an increasing focus on ESG and responsible business expectations, Board level understanding and engagement as to how use AI responsibly and the governance around that is likely to become ever more important.
The TUC is right to flag its concerns around the use of AI and its possible impact on workers. The potential consequences where AI is deployed irresponsibly are significant. However, an organisation which takes the time to factor in the impact of AI technologies on their people and respond accordingly in a way which will foster engagement will surely reap the benefits?
Pressure is growing on ministers to set up safeguards to protect employees from the misuse of artificial intelligence technology in the workplace.