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Andrew Pakes

Director of communications and research for the trade union Prospect

The AI Council and CDEI must do more to give workers a voice

All power to Meredith Whittaker who left Google this week with a powerful message to her fellow tech workers about the need to get organised. The Google Walkouts have become a symbol of growing discontent about how the opportunities of artificial intelligence and data are being applied by major corporations.

The challenges raised by workers are about both ethical decisions – the so-called products and services – and company practices, such as allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination. All of these things matter, and we need to get serious about how we fix the culture of tech before it extends it reach even further into our way of life.

It has been incredible watching tech workers find a voice for change, especially in the United States where labour protections are much lower than in Europe. The sense of frustration and anger about the direction of the industry is palpable. As we know in Prospect, from working with our members in the tech and digital sectors, there is a strong sense that we need to do things differently. And that has to mean more than just a policy to protect whistle-blowers.

Protests are clearly part of the picture. But we also need to nurture a sense of worker voice across the sector. As Whittaker writes in her blog to colleagues, “history shows that centralised power rarely concedes without collective action.” That means organising a sustainable voice for tech workers and, in Whittaker’s words, “building structural power.”

Many of our members contribute to the development of digital technology, and all of them are subject to its growing impacts on the world of work. The issues they raise chime with the concerns raised in Silicon Valley: crunch working; unpaid hours; diversity; transparency; career paths; and ethical decisions around what they are asked to work on. Our members want to know what they are working on and how it will be used.

The 4th industrial revolution is already radically altering industries, jobs, and ways of life, but a recent poll we commissioned from YouGov showed that 58 per cent of UK workers felt that they would not be consulted or involved in any discussions about how technology would affect their jobs.

Workers and their representatives have largely been locked out of conversations about how the new economy will function. It has been deeply disappointing that ministers have overlooked workers in a range of national initiatives set up in the UK to ensure that the development of new technology and automation helps at work. For example, there are no union or worker representatives on the board of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) or the recently announced AI Council. That is no criticism of the expertise represented at these lofty heights, but where is the voice of workers? The same goes for the plethora of initiatives around AI ethics.

Nothing represents this failure to be inclusive more than the rapid collapse of Google’s controversial ethics committee following a criticism about its composition, including from Google’s employees. This shouldn’t be difficult. If the objective is to create a shared set of standards for AI, then decisions need to involve the full range of people both delivering and affected by new technology. As the equality slogan goes: nothing about us, without us.

The solutions need to involve a sustained voice for tech workers. At an international level we are working through Uni Global, our international federation, on the development of ‘worker tech’ and new models of organising. On a national level, we need to fight to ensure worker voices are heard in the debate around AI ethics and in the boardrooms of advisory bodies. It is encouraging that the incoming EU Commission president has signed up to delivering on the work of High-Level Working Group on AI ethics. Whilst the guidelines are not perfect, they are clear about the need to engage workers and unions in these decisions. With Brexit approaching it is essential that the UK government mirrors these efforts.

In workplaces, unions like the GMB have already been doing brilliant work supporting Amazon warehouse workers at the hard end of how data and tech are being applied. We also need a worker voice upstream, where new tech is designed and developed. Companies that have ethics committees should include union representatives or workers on them, just as we have with health and safety.

Unions like ours, and our BECTU sector in the media and entertainment industries, already work with coders, data specialists and designers. But we need to extend our reach. And it is not just about unions. There are some incredible DIY worker groups coming together as well. We are working with amazing groups, such as Women Leading in AI, to bring diversity and inclusion to the fore in debates around technology.

Without a sustainable voice for workers in decisions that affect us, we will continue to see tech workers taking direct action to highlight bad management or ethical decisions, while other workers resist new technology they regard with suspicion or even fear. Alongside the technological transformations that are spreading through our economy, we should be looking to effect a transformation in how innovation and change is managed and steered in our workplaces and industries – from something that is done to workers, to something that is done with them.

Andrew Pakes is Director of Communications & Research at the trade union Prospect. He tweets at @andrew4mk