The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, and the subsequent displacement of workers, demands that the benefits of greater technology-driven productivity are shared with workers. That was the message conveyed by Fórsa to Ireland’s top academic and commercial experts on AI at a recent seminar in Dublin.
The union’s communications officer Niall Shanahan told the seminar that unions wanted to ensure that the benefits of automation and technological development led to better working lives.
“This can be in the form of elimination of repetitive or dangerous tasks, or the reduction in working hours but with maintenance of pay, for example through a four-day week,” he said.
Niall said unions across Europe had called for greater dialogue, cooperation, and consultation when new technology is introduced into workplaces.
“There is a widespread agreement that contemporary innovations and development in automation, computing, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) poses at least the possibility of disruption and changes in labour markets and employment.
“These rapid developments have caused much anxiety among unions and others who are interested in labour markets as the prospect of mass unemployment precipitated by automation and computerisation seems evident. But this is not a new challenge for the trade union movement.
“It was a hot topic at the TUC Congress in 1956, where people were talking about a new “electronic computer” developed by the food manufacturer Lyons (Lyons Electronic Office, or ‘LEO’ for short). The computer could work out the payslips for 10,000 employees in four hours — a job that used to require 37 clerks.
“The TUC echoed the optimism of John Maynard Keyne’s belief that this technology could usher us forth toward a more prosperous leisure society: “Automation offers the prospect of higher pay, greater leisure, and healthier and less strenuous work,” but argued unions would need to make sure the benefits of greater productivity were shared with workers.
“In that latter sense, our concerns today remain much the same,” he said.
Niall drew from Fórsa’s 2019 scoping report on automation by Craig Whelan, an analyst with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and a Fórsa member, who developed the paper as part of his UCD Masters of Public Policy programme.
Craig’s analysis shows that academic studies since the turn of the millennium vary quite a bit on the extent to which whole jobs, as distinct from specific tasks, will be eliminated by evolving technology.
A 2018 study estimates that approximately half of jobs have a high likelihood of being at least affected by automation.
Of this, 14% are “highly automatable” with a probability of automation of greater than 70%.
Additionally, 32% of jobs have a risk of automation between 50% and 70%, pointing to the possibility of significant change in the way these jobs are carried out.
And while the academics dispute the extent of the risk of automation to labour markets, they tend to agree on trends. Workers with lower levels of education are the most at risk of automation and workers in the occupations estimated to have a higher automation risk are displaying a much higher unemployment rate. As recently as 2018 the OECD said that this particular trend is “already reflected in employment outcomes.”
An Irish study in 2018 estimated that approximately two out of five jobs in Ireland are likely to be impacted substantially by automation. Breaking this down on a sectoral basis, they find that transportation and storage, agriculture, forestry and fishing and the construction sectors have a probability of automation of greater than 50%.
They also find that women tend to be employed in occupations with a higher risk of automation than men.
The publication of the European Commission's regulation for AI in Europe coincided with the seminar. Writing in Silicon Republic one of the organisers of the Dublin event, Professor Barry O’Sullivan from the Insight Research Centre in Cork, commented: “Ireland has a great opportunity to become a leader in trustworthy AI. Ireland is the European home to many of the world’s leading companies in data, AI and technology.
“There is significant national strength in the commercial, academic and civil society spheres. Trustworthy AI will become a commercial imperative.
“Ireland is a country that is respected and trusted throughout the world because of our reputation in areas such as safe food production, our environment, our tradition of international peace-keeping and diplomacy, as well as our achievements in arts and culture. We should establish a world-leading reputation for trustworthy AI. We have the ingredients, the expertise and the ecosystem to make it happen.”