3 Questions for

Nadine Müller

Head of Innovation and Good Work at ver.di and member of Plattform Lernende Systeme

Sustainable use of AI: How do employees remain at the center?

Digitization and the increasing use of AI systems are profoundly changing jobs - both in industry and in the service sector. On the one hand, technological innovations promise improved work processes and relief for employees. At the same time, increasing automation can trigger feelings of external determination, excessive demands or fear of job loss among employees. What needs to be done to ensure that the use of AI contributes to socially sustainable development, in other words: puts people at the center and contributes to a sustainable, globally just and livable society? Nadine Müller, Head of Innovation and Good Work at the United Services Union ver.di and member of Plattform Lernende Systeme, provides answers in this interview.


What does a sustainable working world look like?

Nadine Müller: ver.di has been dealing with the issues of ecology, sustainability and good work for many years. From our point of view, sustainable work has at least two essential meanings. The first is that work is sustainable if its conditions are humane - that is, at least healthy and conducive to personal development. The second aspect relates to the goal of aligning the economy and work in such a way that they correspond to the common good and sustainability goals such as the Paris climate goals, among others. To achieve this, the EU must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 as part of the European Green Deal. ver.di is committed to a social-ecological transformation. Employees and their representative bodies must be involved in this process.

A key step in this process is the expansion of public transportation. If Artificial Intelligence can support this, for example through "smart" traffic control, ver.di welcomes this. In the end, however, the use of AI that consumes a great deal of resources must not cancel out the positive effect on the climate. At the same time, it must be clear that the use of AI alone will not solve climate problems. For example, the expansion of local public transport must be politically enforced and backed up by correspondingly more personnel, with working conditions that are humane - i.e. sustainable. So it remains important to invest not only in AI, but also in socially secure employment, the necessary skills and good working conditions - for a truly sustainable future.


How must the collaboration between humans and AI technologies be designed to meet this ideal?

Nadine Müller: When employees use AI, the most important thing is to ensure that they are involved in the design and introduction of the technology - in other words, that humane work design is considered from the very beginning. Trade unions have coined the term "Good Work by Design" for this purpose. This principle follows the "Privacy by Design" approach enshrined in the European General Data Protection Regulation. The aim here is to develop technology in such a way that the personal rights of employees are safeguarded and data protection is standard from the outset. Such an approach is also recommended in the white paper (in German) of Plattform Lernende Systeme on the introduction of AI systems in companies. This is because it is known from surveys, among other things, that fewer employees feel they are at the mercy of digital technology if they have influence over the way it is used. It is also important to look at the stresses of using technology right from the start - in particular, whether the amount and intensity of work are increasing, ideally through a legally required risk assessment. For example, various studies, including surveys with the DGB's Good Work Index, show that digitization in recent years has increased mental stress in particular and, as a result, mental illness and related early retirements. So for many, work is not sustainable.


What are the requirements for companies and employees?

Nadine Müller: All social actors, companies and employees must prioritize the UN sustainability goals such as the Paris climate goals, including their social objectives such as good working conditions, now and for the coming years, and make them the (minimum) standard. AI applications, especially in companies and in the world of work, must also be evaluated from this perspective. The goals for the use of AI should therefore be primarily oriented toward the common good and thus sustainable, and employees and their interest groups should also be involved in determining the goals. In order to achieve the sustainability goals, innovations - also in the area of digitization and AI - play a major role. There is still a need to catch up here. It should be borne in mind that innovations are promoted quite significantly by good working conditions, as the ver.di Innovation Barometer regularly shows. Since there is no more time to lose, it will now be important to direct all the efforts of companies, employees and their representatives toward sustainable work and the economy - and not to hope for an AI, but to take action and set the course without delay.

The interview is released for editorial use (if source is acknowledged © Plattform Lernende Systeme)

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