AI Weekly: Getting back to work under the watchful eye of technology

This week, we published our latest special issue, “AI and surveillance in the age of coronavirus,” in which we examined how to balance freedom and safety as governments and companies use specific technologies to track and trace the spread of the coronavirus. Now, all the parts and pieces of those issues are filtering down to the next challenge: How do we get back to work?

Everyone is considering how and when to emerge from quarantines and reboot normal life in some way. When do we send our kids back to childcare? When do we finally get those haircuts? When can we safely enjoy a night out at a restaurant with our partners? But most of those are decisions that we can each control for ourselves. We can do those things whenever we feel comfortable doing them.

Not so when it comes to the workplace. Even as working from home has become a new normal for millions, there are millions of other people who do not have that option.

Yet we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, and every point of contact with another human is a potential risk. Entering a building with other employees, and staying in some kind of contact throughout the day with coworkers or customers, increases that risk. There must be measures in place to protect these workers. But that requires some mix of screening, testing, tracking, and surveillance bumping up against ethics and workers’ rights — all the same delicate problems we tackled in our special issue, but filtered down into the workplace.

Companies that bring employees back to their in-person jobs have to be cognizant of their liability if any workers, clients, or customers get sick. In addition to requiring masks, implementing things like touchless kiosks, and using thermal scanning to check workers’ temperatures at the door, that could mean frequently testing employees for COVID-19 — and contact tracing them within the building and beyond, perhaps using an app that they’re required to install on their phones. It may also mean using computer vision to ensure that warehouse workers maintain safe social distance and wear protective gear. And so on.

Were this any other time, unions or privacy advocates could step in and push back on onerous workplace surveillance. But it’s hard to make the argument that such measures are anything but completely necessary. People technically have a choice about whether or not to show up to their workplace — but effectively, they don’t. Some people don’t get a paycheck unless they show up and punch in; regardless, amid historic unemployment and income loss, the vast majority of employees will do anything to hang onto their jobs. A “choice” between feeding your family or potentially contracting a fatal illness and passing it to your loved ones is no choice at all.

Ironically, that lack of choice shifts the balance of safety and freedom, because if you require a person to be at work, you absolutely have to protect them by enforcing safety measures — which may require a deeper level of surveillance and workers’ loss of control over personal data. It’s a complicated problem that we’ll continue to explore, unpack, and investigate.

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