Oliver Suchy, head of the department Digital Working Worlds and Working World Reporting at the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), on the benefits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for employees and the impact of company co-determination.
“We can only achieve greater acceptance for AI through co-determination”
Policy Lab: Mr Suchy, how do you assess the promotion of AI in Germany?
Suchy: I think that quite a lot has changed over the last few years. While these changes have come rather late, we now have a couple of good approaches in terms of research and the working world as well as social innovations. Looking forward, I would like to see a little more consistency in what the various “centres”, such as SMEs or regional competence centres, are doing. Many initiatives could be networked with each other better to harness greater synergistic benefits. In general, I think that politicians should also learn from in-company experimentation spaces and expert networks to find out more about the actual requirements. Because this is where lessons that are also politically relevant are being learned.
Policy Lab: The DGB is supporting Civic Innovation Platform as a cooperation partner. Why is this project of interest to you?
Suchy: The platform is of interest to us because it is geared towards social needs. At the moment, we are tending to experience AI in our daily lives in terms of the convenience it offers, so as a means of making life easier for us. By contrast, the platform is about getting social innovations off the ground. As well as this, I’m impressed by the speed. Normally, it takes a very long time for projects to be funded and yield results. Although there is, of course, good reason for this, we should still generally try to be quicker. The Civic Innovation Platform is about turning small ideas into good projects.
Policy Lab: What aspects must be taken into account in the development of AI applications to ensure that they can be utilised by everyone?
Suchy: I think it is naïve to believe artificial intelligence systems can be used equally by everyone and that everyone will always benefit from them. AI in particular involves difficult conflicts of interest. So, you need to differentiate. At the DGB, we have a clear focus: we want to use AI to improve work and to develop good work. However, this is difficult in practice. Frequently, the employees and works councils do not have the necessary transparency regarding the systems and there is often a certain lack of orientation among employers. This concerns questions such as: “What can I actually achieve with AI?” “What strategy do I have and what conflicting goals does this involve?” With AI in particular, an impact assessment of the changes in the company and jobs is urgently needed. After all, it is a question of the future of human autonomy and the distribution of roles in the interaction between humans and machines. These questions also relate to the project ideas on the Civic Innovation Platform. For instance, I think that AI offers huge potential for improving conditions for nursing staff as well as for those in need of care. However, these are very sensitive questions that must be explored carefully, preventively, and in such a way that all those concerned are involved. In any case, people are different and there are always disparate interests that must be reconciled. We need a new way of thinking and better change processes here. At the DGB, we developed a concept for this in 2020 and it met with broad acceptance.
Policy Lab: Can you give a specific example of how AI can improve employees’ working lives?
Suchy: In nursing care, voice recognition can simplify documentation and there are countless other examples of this in production, quality control, or active exoskeletons for warehouses. The range is almost infinite. The question we must always ask is whether AI applications can actually ease employees’ workloads and, in this way, improve working conditions. Only then will both sides stand to benefit. And this is not possible without an in-company impact assessment. This, in turn, calls for new change management.
“The question we must always ask is whether AI applications can actually ease employees’ workloads and, in this way, improve working conditions. Only then will both sides stand to benefit.”
Policy Lab: What can employees do to be able to work well in the digital working world? What can they do to prepare for the greater use of AI?
Suchy: It is not only employees who need to prepare. Companies and public administrations must jointly set out to identify requirements. This approach is also being pursued by the Civic Innovation Platform. So the first question is this: “What do we need in the first place?” To return to nursing care as an example: Questions include how intelligent robotics can actually support employees, whether and, if so, what applications can help those in need of care, and where conflicts are likely to occur. To this end, it is necessary to bring together researchers and users, i.e. the employees and employers, in order to set up the system in such a way that it improves the situation on a sustained basis. This also raises the question as to how AI systems can be evaluated at all. This is a challenge for companies as well as for works councils. For this reason, a transparency obligation for AI providers, as currently planned by the EU, is the right approach, albeit one that needs further development. However, I think that there should also be supportive funding to strengthen employee representatives through training. This is an aspect being pursued by the Federal Government’s AI strategy and we see further potential here.
Policy Lab: The Civic Innovation Platform is a central element of the 'Civic Coding – Innovation Network for AI for the Common Good' initiative. This is a joint project of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS), the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) and the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV). The purpose of this open network is to pool the three ministries’ resources and to promote and encourage the development and use of AI for the benefit of the common good. What, in the trade unions’ view, does such a network need?
Suchy: First of all, I think a network likes this makes a lot of sense, although, if I had my way, it would be even broader in terms of its reach. The skills, strengths, and requirements of the various ministries generally need to be linked more closely. We see a great need for catching up in the public sector. As far as the trade unions are concerned, such a network must also include the perspectives of employees and the works councils. After all, it is ultimately the employees who use and deal with these applications. The new Works Council Modernisation Act offers a preliminary approach with regard to co-determination. However, our aims go substantially further in terms of the involvement and binding participation of employees and their representatives. Unfortunately, however, we have not yet been able to achieve these goals, although I am convinced that they are necessary, not least of all in an international comparison. It is only with innovative change and co-determination processes that we will be able to achieve cultural transformation and a transparent approach to AI. This will also dispel the widespread fear of technology.
Policy Lab: How did you experience the first round of the “AI is what we make it” idea contest and what are your expectations for the future rounds?
Suchy: What made the first round so exciting was the many different approaches. They not only involved work but many other ideas as well. My hope is that the content remains just as diverse and that networks can be established for the many ideas that are in people’s minds. And I hope that these ideas reach fruition with the impetus provided by the platform and the Policy Lab.
Policy Lab: Mr Suchy, many thanks for talking to us!