The EU needs to ensure that the AI revolution does not endanger the quality of work in Europe. Interactions between workers and machines must be regulated in such a way that humans never become underlings to machines, argues the European Economic and Social Committee in a report adopted at its September plenary.
While AI can relieve workers of boring, repetitive or even dangerous tasks, the EESC feels that it is crucial to define the relationship between humans and machines, how autonomous the latter can be, and how they will complement the work of human beings. It urges the Commission to address these questions in the ethical guidelines it is currently preparing.
"It is not ethically acceptable for a human being to be controlled by AI or seen as the underling of a machine which issues orders on how, when and what kind of tasks should be performed. However, at times it would seem that we have already crossed that particular ethical Rubicon," said rapporteur Franca Salis Madinier. She called on the EU to make it a priority to avert all forms of digital Taylorism.
The European Commission's AI strategy, with its strong focus on education, training and building up digital skills, is useful when it comes to curbing the social polarisation we are witnessing: those people who have digital skills are succeeding in making the most of the digital revolution, while many others are left by the wayside. Nevertheless, the EESC argues that this is only a partial response to the complex challenges involved.
The Committee points to three instruments of social dialogue that can help ensure a socially acceptable transition where education fails to provide answers:
- inclusive AI, involving workers in the practical processes of introducing AI into the workplace, in order to facilitate acceptance;
- anticipating change through social dialogue, looking into how production processes will change businesses and sectors;
- socially responsible restructuring when redundancy plans become unavoidable, exploring all possible alternatives to layoffs.
The EESC also warns against the dangers of applying algorithms to the recruitment of workers and recommends that the Commission's ethical guidelines enshrine principles of transparency. "It is not a matter of revealing codes, but rather ensuring that the parameters and criteria used to make decisions are understandable," says the EESC.
With accidents already being reported as a result of interactions between humans and machines in the workplace, the EESC calls for these emerging health and safety risks to be clearly identified and provision to be made in EU law covering workers who are exposed to them.
Finally, the EESC would like to see the Commission launch a debate on how to finance social security systems in the future, since the current systems, which are based mainly on revenues obtained from the taxation of work, will no longer be sustainable if AI, robots and new forms of work increasingly replace workers in Europe's economies. "This debate should also touch on the redistribution of the benefits of digitalisation", argues the EESC.