Workplace AI, robots and trackers are bad for quality of life, study finds – The Guardian

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Exposure to new technologies including trackers, robots and AI-based software at work is bad for people’s quality of life, according to a groundbreaking study from the the Institute for Work thinktank.

Based on a survey of more than 6,000 people, the study analysed the impact on wellbeing of four groups of technologies that are becoming increasingly prevalent across the economy.

The authors found that the more workers were exposed to technologies in three of these categories – software based on AI and machine learning; surveillance devices such as wearable trackers; and robotics – the worse their health and wellbeing tended to be.

By contrast, use of more long-established information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as laptops, tablets and instant messaging at work tended to have a more positive effect on wellbeing.

“We found that quality of life improved as the frequency of interaction with ICTs increased, whereas quality of life deteriorated as frequency of interaction with newer workplace technologies rose,” the report said.

While the authors did not directly investigate the causes, they pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous research which showed, “such technologies may exacerbate job insecurity, workload intensification, routinisation and loss of work meaningfulness, as well as disempowerment and loss of autonomy, all of which detract from overall employee wellbeing”.

Economists at Goldman Sachs speculated last year that 300m jobs worldwide could be automated out of existence by 2030 as a result of the development of generative AI, with many more roles radically transformed.

Dr Magdalena Soffia, the study’s lead author, said it was not necessarily the technologies themselves that are the problem, but the way in which they are adopted.

“We don’t want to claim that there is some sort of determinism in what technology causes, in terms of wellbeing,” she said. “We say it really depends on the context: on lots of structural factors, on environmental conditions, how it is designed and how it is deployed. So lots of human decisions.”

She added that the researchers used a well-established measure of quality of life, EuroQoL EQ-5D-3L, which asks respondents about factors such as their mobility, mental health and pain levels.

“We wanted to give a more multidimensional, nuanced understanding of what was happening in terms of wellbeing. So we used this measure which is a very validated measure, used by the UK public health sector,” Soffia said.

Discussing the fillip to quality of life from ICTs, she suggested “one possible potential mechanism is that actually what they do is to streamline work processes, and they make working life a bit more efficient. And that in turn, gives you kind of a sense of achievement.”

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By contrast, the findings about trackers and surveillance technologies chime with recent warnings from trades unions and campaigners about the negative impact on workers whose performance is being constantly monitored.

Mary Towers, the TUC’s lead on AI, said: “These findings should worry us all. They show that without robust new regulation, AI could make the world of work an oppressive and unhealthy place for many.

“Things don’t have to be this way. If we put the proper guardrails in place, AI can be harnessed to genuinely enhance productivity and improve working lives.”

The new report forms part of the Pissarides Review into the Future of Work and Wellbeing, being carried out by the IFW in collaboration with Warwick Business School and Imperial College London.

Prof Sir Christopher Pissarides, the veteran economist overseeing the review, said: “As new technologies rapidly reach further into our working lives it is vital that we understand how our interactions with them impact our quality of life.”

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