Unions must be alert and ready to act over artificial intelligence

  • 12 Sep 2023

Séamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary writes for the Morning Star on threats posed by artificial intelligence and action unions must take.

This article was published on the Morning Star website as part of coverage on TUC Congress 2023.

Unions must be alert and ready to act over artificial intelligence

IIl fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

It may seem anachronistic to quote from Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, published in 1770, as the starting point for a discourse on artificial intelligence, but Goldsmith’s salutary warning has a striking relevance to the relentless developments which are already having a profound impact on our daily lives.

The rapidly advancing technologies which seek to displace human thought and actions with machines may initially have been perceived as having a sort of sci-fi novelty quality but as the seismic changes enabled by artificial intelligence become apparent the global trade union movement is waking up to the reality that this latest wave of new technology poses an existential threat beyond our wildest imaginings.

No sooner has one scrutinised the latest development in artificial intelligence does another emerge with wide-ranging ramifications.

The challenge for the trade union movement is to recognise the threats and to adopt a strategic approach predicated on the principle that humans must never be the slaves of technology.

Trade unions have constantly navigated the turbulent waters of disruptive, transformative technologies going back to the first Industrial Revolution.

With a background in print journalism and in my role as an NUJ official, I am acutely aware of the changes wrought in the print industry.

Artificial intelligence is of a new order and has implications beyond the workplace, leaving imprints on our daily lives as consumers, as citizens, as parents in every sphere of activity.

While unions must remain cognisant of the opportunities AI presents for workers when used ethically, the chorus of caution from journalists, creators and artists alike must not be ignored.

Across creative sectors and beyond, employers are introducing technologies without trade union engagement and policies to support safeguarding.

The reinforcement of bias through the use of AI in recruitment and selection procedures is a reality which cannot be dismissed.

The NUJ and TUC are rightly calling for the protection of workers’ rights to remain at the centre of advancements and the European Trade Union Confederation has been to the fore in demanding that human beings must be in control of workplace machines.

As Esther Lynch, ETUC general secretary, told delegates at the recent Irish Congress of Trade Unions delegate conference, many workers are already being “monitored to within an inch of their lives” but now face a requirement for even greater engagement with technology in the workplace.

There can be no ambiguity about what is generated by AI and what is produced by humans — legislation must mandate this distinction.

Shocking reports of actors’ voices and likenesses used without consent, content scraped from the internet to inform models, or authors’ books used to train generative AI systems without agreement are all recent examples of breaches giving cause for concern.

Equally sinister perhaps is the use of “in perpetuity” contracts to manoeuvre ethical principles that should lie at the heart of AI use.

In July, I expressed grave concern over an AI-generated article published across titles owned by the anti-union Iconic Media Group in Ireland.

“Should refugees from Ireland go home?” was the title chosen to stoke disdain for vulnerable people seeking safety and shelter, despite the article itself being generated without the obvious bias or hatred one could reasonably suspect from such wording.

Labelled as generated by ChatGPT, notably missing was the depth found in articles written by journalists who pride themselves on adherence to ethical standards including the NUJ Code of Conduct.

Following a wave of backlash, the article’s heading was swiftly altered to “Can we trust artificial intelligence?”

Publishers’ dogged approaches to boosting profits means the NUJ has already witnessed growing efforts to introduce technologies.

This is true too across industries, where freelances and the self-employed without the financial means of developers face an inequality of arms with their works exploited without the fair remuneration they deserve.

Publishers reportedly in discussions with AI companies seeking licensing agreements for content must ensure rights holders are fairly compensated and transparency must reign within processes.

Above all, workers must not be subjugated to machines in the pursuit of the accumulation of wealth.

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