Intelligence in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

A look at some of the considerations which the recently established Work and Technology Commission will need to consider when assessing the impact on the future of work and jobs: from skills & diversity to ethics and governance.

“[It is] never easy to live in an age of transition - indeed, of revolution. As the old Chinese curse has it: “May you live in interesting times,” and the twentieth century is probably the most “interesting” period mankind has ever known.”1

Perhaps the twenty-first century will surpass this prediction. And if pronouncements about the changes which big data, automation, machine learning, analytics and artificial intelligence come to fruition, this revolution may be a blessing and a burden. We are certainly hearing more about the impact which AI will have on our 21st century concept of work and the likely impact in the workplace.

Unrealised Consequences

One of the skills asked of lawyers is to predict and anticipate consequences: what happens if a commercial arrangement does not proceed as predicted? Who carries liability, and what losses flow from that liability, for breach of a duty in law? When changes to a business are at the planning stage, what are the risks and how can these be navigated?

The consequences of the digital age as we begin to experience the fourth industrial revolution, bring interesting challenges, particularly in assessing the extent to which existing laws apply or need to be modified or supplemented. These are wide ranging:

  • commercial considerations such as the ownership IP, product liability: who is responsible for any alleged negligence or breach of duty?
  • data issues around privacy, processing obligations, compliance and security.

In jurisdictions across the globe, governments are looking at the consequences and issues which arise. The European Union for example is considering the extent to which it would be appropriate to recognise and give AI a legal personality or entity, in the context of assessing ultimate liability.

These are all external issues and risks; there are important internal aspects about how an organisation plans and manages the introduction and the commercial and data issues need to be considered and addressed from an employee/worker perspective (systems, contractual terms and policies). The use of AI and the impact which it will have on existing talent, workflows and the skills sets required to make this significant investment and adoption of new systems a success, also require careful consideration.

Successful Adoption

The naysayers will highlight the risks which AI poses to job numbers and loss of jobs. Successful adoption of new technologies requires careful communication by a business to address resistance to new processes. Another view that cynics take is that all that will happen is to improve the profit for owners as operations become more efficient with a reduced headcount. Business leaders, their HR functions and managers must work hard against such attitudes to dispel or at least put a counterweight to, these beliefs.

The positive messages include the fact that machines and programmes can remove the mundane, repeat work and as well as achieving efficiencies, they can also enable better compliance. This inevitably links to employee well-being - it will make life at work better. It is important to make clear that, often, these new technologies are about assisted intelligence and are there to support individuals and inform decision-making: because it is the human brain that has the capacity to use the analysis and the data by adding context, experience and anticipating scenarios. The analogy of satnav is a good one: blindly following the directions, albeit with a machine that has the benefit of data about road systems and routes, can lead to the wrong destination or taking an impossible path!

So, one of the important management considerations is to understand the systems, to make sure that these are integrated into the business with staff and the right teams around them; and that AI is properly managed. It is about achieving the right collaboration between individuals and AI to get to the right result together.

Care with Skills and Risks of Inequality

A key question that business leaders and those heading up key functions within a business should be asking themselves, is whether they have the right skills sets within the organisation currently to achieve successful collaboration; and if not, is there a need to start retraining individuals, making use of their existing experience and knowledge of the organisation? Whilst skills can be brought in and new recruits appointed, few will see significant advantage in losing existing staff who have the right potential.

In the current age we talk a lot about diversity and recognise disparities in the workplace around gender and ethnicity. The challenge of attracting more women (and girls) to STEM subjects will remain and may become more acute if significant improvements are not achieved by businesses. There is likely to be a higher risk of age discrimination – either because of assumptions that are made about existing skills, retraining and “adaptability” – within the work environment. An underdeveloped area is the concept of socio-economic disadvantage: inequality because of background and experience - particularly education and work opportunities. This form of inequality may well come to the fore, as the impact of AI is likely to be more significant/more marked in lower skilled and lower paid job roles, which are most vulnerable to substitution by machine processes.

Governance and Stewardship

There is already significant debate around the ethical framework in which AI operates and much of this has focused on such considerations as they apply to the design and build of the programmes and algorithms. Another dimension, just emerging, is corporate governance and an employer’s stewardship: in other words, internally how technology and data is used and the organisation’s corporate social responsibility.

It is not difficult to envisage a situation where an individual becomes concerned about these aspects leading to whistleblowing or some other form of objection being raised; even the possibility of concerns and complaints linked to their own beliefs and conscience. To illustrate how these considerations may begin to impact, it is worth referencing steps that Google has already taken to communicate its ethics framework, identifying to staff and consumers the principles within which Google will operate as a business and their developmental work - including the aims and objectives to which they plan to make use of that AI work.

These types of considerations and communications or policy statements could become an important factor when it comes to recruitment and talent management.

Looking at the Future

These are just some of the questions which a newly established commission, the Commission on Workers and Technology, will have to consider. The Fabian Society and the trade union, Community, have set up this Commission to be chaired by Yvette Cooper MP. Its role over the next two years will be to identify the actions required to support workers facing technological change, and the anticipated impact on them in the next 10 years. It will make recommendations for action to help unions to support their members and workers as well as government and employers.

The specific issues which the Commission has been asked to address are:

  • how to best ensure technological change results in good jobs not bad jobs,
  • the support required to help workers adapt and reskill, and
  • how government, employers and trade unions can best work together on this agenda - which has been termed the industrial partnership.

The other members of the Commission include individuals from Nesta, Google UK, Prospect, the TUC, a professor from the University of Oxford and Sage. It will be interesting to see what recommendations are made and the outputs from their work will be worth monitoring.


1“Space and the Spirit of Man” in “Voices from the Sky”: Arthur C. Clarke

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.