Podcast Title: Health and Safety to Go!

Episode #: 159: Artificial Intelligence - Implications for Workers - Bill Wilkerson

Introduction: Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Host:    The current spread of artificial intelligence into science, culture, society, jobs, and the economy will have profound effects. It represents a revolutionary change that will replace many jobs and tasks currently performed by human beings.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of “Health and Safety to Go”. Our guest today is Bill Wilkerson, Executive Chairman of Mental Health International and Industry Professor, International Mental Health at McMaster University.  Bill is the author of a new report that is aimed at leaders in government, science and business.  The report of Two Minds -  One Human One Not -  Mental Health in the Era of Artificial Intelligence, recommends that artificial intelligence be managed carefully to prevent it from becoming a major intruder into the mental health and well-being of workers and families. Thanks for joining us today Bill.

Bill:  My pleasure, glad to be here.

Host:   What is the central message that your report delivers? Are you saying that it is all bad?

Bill:  No, not at all, not all bad. There's a phrase that some of the experts in the fields, proponents even of Artificial intelligence use, they call it “The promise and the Peril of AI” and that's really what I'm referring to.  The promise being that, yes, artificial intelligence can help humanity, and in the mental health field, could in fact produce new applications that could assist in improving the treatment of mental health problems. But at the same time, it has the great potential to impose upon employee’s egregious uncertainty, job loss, job displacement and a sense of having lost their place in the workplace and therefore posing a threat to their families and their economic well-being. So it's the two sides of one coin.

Host:  What are some examples of AI in the workplace and what are the implications on workers?

Bill:  One implication or one example I guess and the implication thereof, is this question of invasive and malignant, I might say, uncertainty.  When you have a revolution in technology like this, one that is pretty well unparalleled in our history, you can generate among working people a fear that this will affect them in a highly negative way and that fear can persist for a great period of time.  And those are the underlying currents that lead to human distress and even mental disorder.  Pervasive uncertainty is a trigger of stress that can have a fairly deleterious effect on the mental health and well-being of people. So it's the uncertainty factor.  Another is that the chilling idea that smart machines could become essentially “co-workers” for employees rather than useful technology that helps to facilitate improved output, and that again is dangerous because it intrudes upon the self-awareness and self-place of individual employees, which can disrupt their own capacity to function in a healthy manner.

And finally, I think what we need to understand is that artificial intelligence does not provide uniquely human traits, and therefore it is not something that we should expect it to do that human beings can uniquely do, exude empathy, to listen carefully to others, to be cooperative and to be mutually supportive in the workplace. So it has a limitation that if exaggerated could overstate what its capacity really is.

Host: Are there solutions or ways of coping with the impact of AI in the workplace?

Bill: Yes, we're proposing in the report. We're proposing a series of things; one is the establishment of a set of standards that will articulate from an employer point of view, what are the values that will guide the introduction of artificial intelligence into the workplace.  And I might add that the government of Canada as an employer has already introduced a directive to its own senior people concerning how the ethical and humane use of artificial intelligence must govern and guide their deployment of this technology now and later.

We also believe that there should be a real serious commitment of investment in people on a parallel line with the investment in technology.  And by that, I mean investing in the re-skilling, which is a kind of a new phrase replacing the term retraining, re-skilling of individuals to allow them to take their new place in a heavily digitized economy.

And thirdly, we believe that mental health considerations should be incorporated directly into those broad based strategies now being developed by governments and technology companies.  Most specifically, I'm happy to report that the federal government’s pan-Canadian strategy on AI being developed will include mental health considerations as a result of our report, as will Quebec's International Observatory on the societal effects of AI.

So both of those initiatives are getting equipped if you will to take into account not only the technological and practice or practical business effects of artificial intelligence but the impact on human beings and their mental health and well-being.  That we should also note, I think, that there are hundreds of internationally based committees in groups working on the nature of the effects of artificial intelligence on people. So what I'm talking about in this report is not something that is an isolated voice that I'm projecting. In fact, it is a concern embraced by leaders in the field who are strong proponents and developers of artificial intelligence, who are concerned about that dual proposition of being both - a promising thing in our lives and a perilous thing in our lives. So we have to accept and understand that by addressing the concerns we are not overstating the problem.

Host:  You write about human capitalization. What is it and why does it matter?

Bill:  Human capitalization is a phrase that we have introduced to capture the point that we feel there is an essential need to be met, and that is to invest in people on a par with the investments in technology, which are billions of dollars either way. And so we feel that the spending, if you will, on health programs, the spending on retraining and re-skilling, the spending on helping people make the transition into a heavily digitized economy should be treated as a capital investment, for both accounting purposes and for in terms of tax policy.  And the point being that if you invest in plant and equipment, you can defer those costs over a period of time for tax purposes, which are very beneficial to the employer or to the investor.

Under the current rules, spending on people is a current year expense and has to be written off as a cost here and now, and that is a disincentive to spend on people and the option becomes, if it's a cost, what do you do with the cost? Well you tend to cut the cost and therefore the layoffs proliferate.

So we feel that investments in people and therefore human capitalization of the digital economy makes sense, because in turn it allows both tax policy to recognize these expenditures as capital investments, and therefore incentivizes the employer to make them versus treating them as a same year cost that is essentially bears down on the balance sheet, and therefore the employer tends to want to do one thing and that is to reduce those costs by reducing the employment of people. Let's avoid that this time.

Let's also learn, I would suggest from the effects of globalization. We have allowed globalization to exclude an awful lot of people and in an awful lot of regions and communities and countries and across borders, and we would hope we've learned from that to ensure that we don't create a new generation of people lost in the midst of revolutionary change.

Host:  You talked about Federal and Quebec AI strategies, does mental health fit into the Canadian government strategy on artificial intelligence?

Bill:  Well it will now.  Frankly it did not until our report came out and I had discussions with the President Chief Executive of Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Dr. Allen Bernstein, who saw immediately when we were discussing this.  That was something that had and should have a place in the strategic planning of how artificial intelligence will be deployed across the country or at least aiming to provide standards to guide that deployment.    And the same goes with Dr Rémi Quirion, the Chief Scientist of Quebec and when we met with Rémi he agreed as well.  And therefore we look at mental health as a necessary component of productive capacity today because in large measure the minds of people, the brain power of people is doing the heavy lifting for business today, not the backs and legs and arms. 

Manual labor is going by the wayside, as far as people are concerned, and it means that we're in a brain economy, and brain health therefore becomes an essential ingredient in productive capacity.  In that regard, therefore, mental health can deliver innovation, it can deliver creativity, it can deliver better services. It can deliver the essentials of economic success and development in an economy of this particular nature.

Host:  Do you have any concluding remarks or thoughts that you'd like to share?

Bill:   Yes, I think this -  I want people to look at this report, which is available at Mentalhealthinternational.ca not as a thing that's trying to raise apprehension but a thing that's trying to set forth the fact that artificial intelligence is said to be born of human intelligence. Well, I don't accept that proposition except in the narrowest of terms.  Human intelligence is in fact human beings, and therefore we can't allow an ambiguity to filter our perception of the human role in the human factor in the workplace at a time when digitization is really taking over.  And I just simply want to make sure that when we talk about investing in artificial intelligence, we are also talking about investing in employees. That when we talk about investing in things, we’re also talking about investing in people and that's the fundamental proposition set forth in this report.

Host: Thank you very much Bill.  For more information and resources and a downloadable copy of Bill Wilkerson's of Two Minds -  One Human One Not -  Mental Health in the Era of Artificial Intelligence can be found on the Mental Health International website at www.mentalhealthinternational.ca and at CCOHS.ca. Thanks for listening everyone.