How Could AI Be a Tool for Workers?

AI is already reshaping the way we work, and workers want a say in what that means for their future.

Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter

December 11, 2023

10 Min Read
Machine Learning and Collaborating with Human Workforce
sleepyfellow via Alamy Stock

At a Glance

  • Framing AI as a tool, rather than a replacement.
  • Exploring AI guardrails to minimize human toll.
  • Workers still have a say in their future.

Artificial intelligence has been at the heart of large-scale worker movements in 2023. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) spent months on the picket line fighting for rights relating to the use of AI in their industry.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has been pushing for reform, including a 32-hour work week. Could the tantalizing productivity gains AI seems to offer be instrumental in achieving that goal in the auto industry and beyond? 

Work-life balance, wages and the way people spend their working hours will all be impacted by AI. The bright future of AI promises to free up time for humans to tackle more interesting tasks and boost productivity. In a darker future, AI could lead to spikes in under- and unemployment and the devaluing of human labor. Where is the future of work headed, and how can workers have a voice in how AI is shaping that future? 

What AI Means for the Labor Market

When you hear about AI and jobs, proponents of the technology frequently emphasize that the technology is not meant to replace humans. It is meant to replace tasks. It is meant to work alongside humans, to make them better at their jobs. Yet, there are already reports that AI is leading to job cuts.

Related:How To Get Workers On Board With AI

In May, AI was responsible for cutting 3,900 jobs, according to data from HR consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Investment bank Goldman Sachs estimates that generative AI could expose 300 million full-time jobs to automation.

Of course that massive wave of labor displacement could be balanced by a surge of new jobs springing up in response to AI. But what that balance could look like and the timeline in which it could happen are difficult to predict.

“We probably don't actually know the extent of AI’s impact and exactly how it's going to affect workers,” Rose Khattar, director of economic analysis, inclusive economy at the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute, tells InformationWeek.

AI is a massive technological leap, but this type of giant stride forward is not without precedent. The industrial revolution, the rise of the automobile, the computer age: All these technological shifts radically changed the way people work.

“You can draw the line all the way back to the invention of the wheel, and the core focus of all of that is how do we optimize time by doing things faster, better, hopefully cheaper,” says Cliff Jurkiewicz, vice president, global strategy at HR technology company Phenom.

Related:A New Chapter in the Future of Work: Jobs Are Out, Skills Are In

Those big changes also came with fear of worker replacement. That fear has not yet come to fruition at a catastrophic scale. Humans have adapted.

But there is a significant difference between AI and these past examples of technical leaps. “What we're seeing here is the speed of this innovation can be measured in months to maybe a couple of years. It's certainly not even half of a decade in terms of its overall impact,” says Jurkiewicz.

The precise timeline for seismic changes in the labor market may be difficult to predict, but the ripples are already being felt.

The Potential Downsides for Workers

The benefits for companies designing and using AI systems are vast and readily apparent. Tools that can complete work in a fraction of the time at a fraction of the cost are a boon for the bottom line.

“The main beneficiaries of the technology are global technology giants primarily based in the United States,” says Michael Allen, CTO of enterprise content management company Laserfiche. He points out that these companies have the resources to accrue the massive amounts of data required to train AI models.

Companies that adopt these powerful AI models can leverage them to cut costs. Allen points out that many companies will likely use AI to shift away from outsourcing. “A lot of firms outsource mostly routine clerical work to places like India, and I believe that's going to be threatened or impacted significantly by AI that will be able to do that work faster and cheaper,” he says.

Related:CIOs Can Build a Resilient IT Workforce with AI and Unconventional Talent

The way that AI devalues entry-level work is already being seen. Stephanie Bell is a senior research scientist at the nonprofit coalition Partnership on AI, which created guidelines to ensure AI economic benefits are shared. She offers examples in the digital freelance market. Since the advent of ChatGPT, the number of listings for jobs like data entry, graphic design and entry-level coding has dropped on platforms like Upwork and Fiver. “You see that market has really softened. There's just less compensation for tasks than there used to be,” she says. “That is something that we could see spilling over into more formalized corporate white-collar spaces.”

If this kind of impact continues to spill outward, the potential detriment to workers is clear. “Of course, when people have lower ability to earn a wage with the set of skills that they have, or less of an opportunity to get the job, that also weakens things like their bargaining power and as a result their ability to make requests or demands on things like job quality,” says Bell.

And what about the potential for massive job displacement? With the speed at which AI innovation is taking place, will people be ready to fill the new jobs the technology creates? “I don't want to see the displacement potentially take place or people moving on to different jobs that aren't good quality jobs without any action being taken to ensure that those workers’ needs are met,” says Khattar. 

In addition to the potential for lost jobs, AI also poses safety concerns as people work alongside it. Automation has already proved dangerous for human workers in warehouses. A 2020 report from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the rate of injuries was 50% higher at Amazon warehouses with robots compared to ones without. Workers are pushed to maintain a series of repetitive motions to keep pace with the robots’ efficiency and the resultant productivity targets. Those repetitive motions take their toll on the human body. “You don't need a warehouse robot gone rogue to hurt you in a warehouse setting,” says Bell.

As AI pushes productivity to new heights, will there be guardrails in place to ensure these gains don’t have a human cost?

AI as a Tool for Workers

If the odds seemed stacked in the favor of employers, all one has to do is look to the past. Workers have gained rights: A two-day weekend, a 40-hour work, workplace safety requirements. They stand to benefit from AI, but those benefits won’t simply be granted. “History tells us that's these changes are not given, they are fought for,” says Jurkiewicz.

The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes set the stage for more potential workers’ movements. The outcome of these strikes could be used as the basis for future conversations on workers’ rights, according to Jurkiewicz.

“They asked for specific applications of it to be off-limits and for it to be integrated in a way then enabled them to do their jobs more quickly, more efficiently, for them to experiment with a new emerging tool, see opportunities where they be able to contribute to their business into their industry,” Bell adds. “Those are all very pro-business perspectives, not just pro-worker perspectives.”

The Biden-Harris Administration’s executive order on AI emphasizes the need to support workers and their ability to collectively bargain as AI changes the labor market. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a federation of 60 national and international labor unions, applauded the executive order. “The labor movement stands ready to partner in building comprehensive strategies and accessible programs to ensure working people reap the benefits of AI innovation,” Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO president, said in a statement.

The collective power of workers will be especially important, according to Bell. An individual worker may be able to adopt as many AI tools as possible to increase their productivity, but working in isolation may have a negative impact downstream.

“What that can do over time is actually really erode all of the value of the human capital that person has spent learning all of the skills that made them a good graphic designer or software developer in the first place. Because now other people can also use the same tools,” says Bell. Those people may not have the same skills and experience, but using AI, they could match the productivity and output of that single expert.

If working collectively, workers can argue that they deserve an opportunity to share in the benefits of AI. “That could turn up in the form of increased wages where they're sharing in the economic gains that go to the company and to shareholders,” says Bell. “That could turn up in the format of decreasing working hours, increasing the kinds of perks or benefits that workers are interested in.”

The Future of AI and Work

If workers rights are won, the battle over AI has likely just begun. Pushback and attempts to weaken workers’ ability to organize are likely. The Biden-Harris Administration’s EO made it clear that it aims to support that right and protect workers from the potential harms of AI. Existing agencies, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), have a role to play in protecting workers, according to Bell. And legislation is a distinct possibility as policymakers gain a clearer picture of AI’s impact on work and all of human life.

“I do think that it's really important that we do take like a policymaker approach to this so that the design, the adoption, the deployment, the impact of AI tools and systems on work aren't just left to the creators of AI,” says Khattar. “I think that's quite dangerous.”

Right now, Bell is concerned that companies are incentivized to pursue AI over human investment. “You invest in an AI system and that's considered to be a capital investment where you get tax advantages, right? You can depreciate that asset over time and reduce your tax burden in doing so versus spending on a human to perform the same task. You have to pay payroll taxes on each person that works for you.”

But companies do not necessarily need to view workers as a cost center to be whittled down or even eliminated in order to be successful. Companies can view people as assets who give insight into the ways in which AI can make their jobs better and make the overall organization more successful. “The question is whether that's going to be enough to stay competitive without…broader protections in place for workers,” says Bell.

While it remains difficult to predict just what the future of work with AI will be, even in just a few short years, it does not have to pit workers and employers against one another. There are already examples of work reform initiatives that are beneficial to both parties.

“What we've seen in early experiments with a four-day work week or otherwise reduced hours have shown an increase in employee satisfaction without a loss of productivity. So, to me that means that's good for employers and it's good for workers,” says Khattar.

Bell emphasizes that AI does not have to create a win-lose situation for companies and for workers. “There are absolutely ways that businesses can and have integrated AI technology in a way that their workers are excited to use, that … really delivers benefits to business outcomes and enables both workers and their employers to share in the gains created by these systems,” she says.

About the Author(s)

Carrie Pallardy

Contributing Reporter

Carrie Pallardy is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago. She writes and edits in a variety of industries including cybersecurity, healthcare, and personal finance.

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