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Are we ready for ‘Artificial Empathy’?

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New technologies can offer social possibilities as well business ones, but only if workers are given a voice in how they're developed

Most of us are now familiar with the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Barely a day goes by without a newspaper story about this latest technology, sometimes describing how it will improve our lives and sometimes warning of a dystopian future.

But how about ‘Artificial Empathy’? This term describes the possibility of robots that can detect and respond to human emotions. Minoru Asada, Professor of Adaptive Machine Systems at Osaka University in Japan, describes a “cognitive robot” that learns like a child.

Japan has already made great progress in developing “therapeutic robots” such as Paro the seal, which is designed to be lifelike and used to help to lower the stress levels of dementia sufferers. Paro is part of Japan’s technological response to its ageing population, which I discussed more fully here. Cognitive robots, complete with human emotions, may be next.

This obviously raises ethical questions about where computers end and humanity begins – questions that are beyond the scope of this blog. But it also reminds us of the importance of social context when we discuss technologies like Artificial Intelligence. For trade unions, whether these technologies are positive developments that enrich our lives or negative ones that steal our jobs depends a lot on how they are designed and introduced.

Society 5.0

In Japan last month, I heard about ‘Society 5.0’. According to this concept, Japanese society has gone through four stages of historical development – the hunter-gatherer, agrarian, industrial and information ages – and is now ready for the fifth stage, a super-smart society which integrates cyber space and physical space.

According to Keidanren, a Japanese business organisation, Society 5.0 offers a new growth model with a view to solving “social issues” and “creating a better future”, contributing to the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals, like ending poverty and hunger, and providing quality education, clean energy, decent work and less polluted oceans.

Keidanren speaks of “breaking walls” of government authorities, legal systems, technologies, social acceptance and human resources. On the latter, familiar themes of life-long learning, as well as an educational focus on creative skills and IT literary, are discussed.

Workstyle reform includes a reduction in Japan’s long working hours, a better balance between work and childcare, the introduction of telework and automated jobs through the use of technologies such as AI. Keidanren describes the modifying of traditional regulations for employee protection.

This is fascinating stuff. It is good to hear an employers’ organisation recognising the social possibilities of new technologies, rather than simply the business ones.

Workers' voice

What is missing from this discussion, of course, is workers’ voice itself.

As the ITUC has highlighted, stronger trade unions and sector wide collective bargaining are vital to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Unless workers are empowered to bargain collectively with employers to get decent pay and conditions, it won’t be possible to overcome poverty and gender discrimination, ensure decent working conditions or create green jobs. This requires government to respect ILO conventions on workers’ rights and more employers to bargain collectively with unions.

I witnessed Japan’s long working hours culture myself, and how unions are working to address this. Similarly, any “modification” of employment regulations will need workers input, as will education and skills reforms, if lifelong learning is to benefit the development of workers and not simply the short-term needs of the business.

The name Society 5.0 is clearly based on Industry 4.0, a term developed by the German business community. My good friends in the German trade union movement remind me that their response to Industry 4.0 was Good Work 4.0.

Shaping our digital future

As the TUC discussion paper, ‘Shaping our Digital Future’ described, Germany’s White Paper on the future of work involved employers, unions, churches, community groups and others. This highlights the community role of work.

Since the end of the Second World War, the UK has seen the decline of many industrial towns. It is not simply the fact that factories or businesses have gone. In many of those towns, individual workplaces were the heartbeat of the community. The loss of these workplaces has left communities permanently scarred. It is natural, therefore, that community and faith groups will take an interest in the quantity and quality of work.

Artificial Intelligence has the potential to enhance our lives. Artificial Empathy may do the same, although I think we need to have a conversation about its role, and limits.

But if these technologies are to be a force for good and promote the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda, then a workers’ voice is vital.

Technologies operate in a social context, so a range of social actors must govern their use if they are to enjoy the support of workers and their families.