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Technology through the lens of occupational hazards and risks

Nancy Leppink

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The premise of occupational safety and health – my field of specialization — is that work should do no harm to health and in the best of worlds, should support it. But discerning whether technology and new forms of work are doing harm or doing good can often be tricky.

Let me give a personal example:

Early in my career, I was the first attorney in my office to ask for a part-time schedule to balance my new responsibilities as a parent with my work responsibilities. It was agreed that I would be in the office three days a week – while my work load never allowed me to work only three days a week, my new schedule made it possible to work around my children’s schedules on the days I was not in the office.

In theory it sounded great. But the reality was that it did not sit well with expectations of colleagues and clients. I quickly learned that people would wait a day for me to return their calls or to meet with them, but they were not willing to wait two days. So I worked at the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. But even limiting my absence from the office to only one day at a time, I would arrive in the morning to a fistful of slips for the calls I had missed the previous day, and files on my desk with notes that began with “since you were not in the office today . . . .”

Thankfully, shortly after I began my part-time schedule, my office introduced the latest technological innovation – voicemail. As a result, my relationship with the receptionist improved dramatically since she no longer needed to take dozens of messages for me, but I still had a voicemail box full of calls to return, and people who didn’t appreciate the time it took me to get back to them. Then came the next technological innovation, the ability to retrieve voicemail messages from my home phone. I could now return calls from home while children were napping. My being in the office or not being in the office became less obvious and made the idea of me working a part-time schedule more palatable, particularly to my boss.

Then, in rapid succession came computers, mobile phones and the ability to return voice, text and email messages, which meant I could work at my desk or in my car waiting for my son to finish his music lesson.

But eventually, it also meant the work-life balance I had tried to achieve became a juggling act to keep all the “work and life” balls in the air simultaneously. And somewhere along this timeline of innovation, technology went from supporting my health to most likely harming it.

Assessing whether technology is a hazard that causes harm or increases risk of harm is complex and more often than not it has much to do with the choices made about how it is used.

Technology’s ability to minimize risk is often clear – as for example using a robot instead of person to enter a confined space with a high density of monoxide carbon. But in other circumstances, whether it meets the standard of “do no harm” and when it crosses the line from supporting health to harming it, is less salient.

In certain instances technology is being used to enable what looks like a new business model but when unmasked is an all too familiar exploitative one.

Just because we may feel outdated by the acceleration of technological innovation doesn’t mean the principles of decent work are also outdated.

We need to adapt our application of those principles to the world technology enables, and we also need to insist on the accountability of innovators and users of technology to protect the health and safety of workers. It isn’t good enough to say that technological innovations can be used for good or for bad, we must insist that innovative talent tip the scales to the good.

ILO

Nancy Leppink, Chief of the ILO’s Labour Administration, Labour Inspection and Occupational Safety and Health Branch

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Meet the 2018 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers

MD Staff

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The World Economic Forum announced its annual list of Technology Pioneers today. Of the 61 early-stage companies recognized for their design, development and deployment of potentially world-changing innovations and technologies, a majority (54%) come from outside the United States, including many from emerging markets, and a quarter (25%) is female-led.

“Innovation comes from all corners of the earth and from a very diverse group of entrepreneurs, and with this selection we recognize that,” said Cheryl Martin, Head of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Member of the Managing Board at the World Economic Forum. “The next step is to help these Pioneers bring their solutions to complex world-critical problems to global markets and to take action for the public good.”

The Technology Pioneers 2018 address many societal challenges, a hopeful sign that technology will be a force for good in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Apeel Sciences (USA), for example, develops plant-derived technologies to reduce food waste; Pymetrics (USA) matches talents to opportunity using neuroscience games and artificial intelligence (AI); and Horizon State (Australia) enables efficient and secure vote casting.

“Technology and start-ups are not just about computer software, consumer apps and social networks,” said Fulvia Montresor, Head of Technology Pioneers at the World Economic Forum. “Technology Pioneers 2018 are tackling complex challenges such as environmental sustainability, efficient energy use and access to healthcare.”

Technology Pioneers come from all over the world. Among the nations to host Pioneers are Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya and Morocco, as well as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the US. The Pioneers include:

  • Bangladesh-based ME SOLshare democratizes energy by developing peer-to-peer microgrids
  • Kenyan-based CarePay is developing an inclusive platform for health financing and delivery in Africa
  • Brazilian- based Agrosmart makes agronomic models based on genetics, soil type and microclimate data

Examples from well-known innovation hubs include Precognize (Israel), which is developing predictive maintenance software for the process industry, and BenevolentAI (UK) which is developing and applying AI for scientific innovation.

The leadership of the 2018 Technology Pioneers is gender diverse, with 25% of the companies (co-)founded by women. Examples include: Viola Llewellyn, Co-Founder and President of Ovamba Solutions, who built a $500 million life insurance investment fund before co-founding Ovamba; Diana Paredes, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Suade Labs, who had a successful career in investment banking before applying her expertise to financial regulation as a service; and Elizabeth Rossiello, Chief Executive Officer and founder of BitPesa, who is an advocate for blockchain technology in emerging markets and financial innovation across frontier markets.

The newly selected Technology Pioneers will meet at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2018 in Tianjin, People’s Republic of China, on 18-20 September. Some of them will also participate in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, on 22-25 January. As leaders of innovation, they will be supported by the Forum’s new Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and contribute to fostering the innovation ecosystem and delivering critical mass to solve global challenges.

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Nations Improving Technology Also Improve Sustainability

MD Staff

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Nations investing in technology infrastructure make faster, more efficient progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), according to a report released by Huawei today in London, England. The study assesses correlations between ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and progress in meeting SDGs in 49 countries.

According to the 2018 Huawei ICT Sustainable Development Benchmark, Huawei found that ICT development is 91% correlated with progress on the SDGs. This suggests that ICT is a leading indicator for sustainable development. This represents an improvement on last year’s results even though the number of countries analysed increased from 15 to 49.

Six key SDGs were reviewed, including: Health and Well Being (SDG 3), Quality Education (SDG 4), Gender Equality (SDG 5), Clean Energy (SDG 7), Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (SDG 9), and Sustainable Cities (SDG 11).

The report found SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 4 (Quality Education), and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) have the highest levels of correlation with ICT, suggesting digital technology can provide breakthrough in these areas and accelerate country performance. This is especially true for developing economies, where small investments in ICT are coupled with rapid SDG gains.

The study shows ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Access, Use, and Skills are clearly linked with a country’s sustainable development. Each nation was grouped into three clusters – Leaders, Up-and-Comers, and Pioneers. Countries that perform well in ICT also do well in progress on the SDGs, while countries that underperform on ICT also lag on SDG achievement.

“Huawei believes that stimulating the potential of digital technology will help solve society’s most urgent development challenges,” said Kevin (Jingwen) Tao, Chairman of Huawei’s Corporate Sustainable Development Committee, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. “If a country fails to seize the opportunities brought about by digital technology, the country’s economic and social development may slow down.”

“This study is shows that digital infrastructure is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – only 12 years away,” said Tao. “We have extended the scope of the report from last year and focused on whether digital connectivity is able to contribute to the sustainable development of society. For example, ICT technology may contribute to lifelong education, create greater economic value, create jobs, and reduce inequality.”

“We hope that this report will enable people to fully realize the importance of ICT and hope it provides support for relevant policy analysis, so as to create a more intelligent world with greater prosperity, tolerance, and sustainable development.” said Tao.

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A Brave New World without Work

Nikolay Markotkin

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the soon-to-come widespread introduction of robots and artificial intelligence (AI)? Endless queues of people waiting to get unemployment benefits? Skynet drones ploughing the sky over burnt-out slums? Or the opposite: idleness and equality provided by the labour of mechanical slaves? In all likelihood the reality will be less flashy, though that doesn’t mean we should ignore the social consequences of the technological changes taking place before our very eyes.

Revolution on the March

The Fourth Industrial Revolution with its robotics, bio and nanotechnologies, 3D printing, Internet of things, genetics, and artificial intelligence is rapidly spreading across the world [1]. The coming technological changes will have direct consequences for a number of existing professions and promise in the very least to transform the labour market in developed countries.

The high speed of change (suffice it to say that 10 of the most popular professions of 2010 did not exist in 2004) makes it difficult to predict the impact on society. In this regard, the assessments of experts and international organizations range from optimistic to alarmist. However, even if we were to eliminate the most extreme case scenarios, we could still say with certainty that a fundamental restructuring of the global economy, comparable to the one that took place in the 18th–19th centuries during the First Industrial Revolution, awaits us in the foreseeable future.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs report, 65% of today’s primary school students will have hitherto unheard-of professions. McKinsey came to the same conclusion, highlighting in their report that at the current level of technological development, 30% of the functions of 60% of professions can be automated. M. Osborne and C. Frey of Oxford University give an even more pessimistic forecast. According to their research, 47% of jobs in the US risk being automated within 20 years.

Who will robots replace?

What professions are at risk? First at risk is, of course, unskilled labour. The Osborne and Frey study found clerks, data entry workers, librarians, machine operators, plumbers, sales specialists, and equipment adjusters among others to be those most vulnerable.

According to WEF, from 2015 to 2020, job reductions will have the greatest effect on office professions (4.91%) and the manufacturing sector (1.63%). Employment in areas such as design, entertainment, construction, and sales should also decline by 1%. In turn, the most significant growth in jobs is predictably expected in the field of computer technology (3.21%), architectural and engineering specialties (2.71%), and management (just under 1%).

Predictably, professions related to transport risk automation in the medium term. The development of self-driving vehicles could radically change both the passenger and freight traffic markets. In the US alone, 8.7 million people are employed in the long-distance freight traffic industry. If you take into account all of the business operations connected to trucking (motels, roadside cafes, etc.), the number increases to 15 million or about 10% of the country’s labour force. Reductions in passenger transport and the public transport sector are likely to be even more significant. It is also probable that self-guiding technologies will be introduced into sea freight traffic in the near future. The development of artificial intelligence should also bring down hard times on lawyers, teachers, miners, middle management, and journalists among others.

It can be said that on the whole, employment will gradually move from services to other sectors of the economy, many of which have yet to be created. The possibility is a confirmation of the revolutionary nature of the changes that are taking place rather than something unique. Before the First Industrial Revolution, over 70% of the population was occupied with agriculture, whereas nowadays the number hovers around a few percent in developed countries. The percentage of those employed in manufacturing continued to grow until the mid-twentieth century, though it has now fallen to 24% in the EU and 19% in the US (27% in Russia) as a result of the Digital Revolution. Meanwhile, although there are fewer workers, production volume continues to rise steadily. It would now appear to be time to automate services.

The Golden Age of Engineers and Psychiatrists?

Professions associated with intellectual work or direct personal contact with clients are least likely to suffer in the short term. According to the study from Oxford University, professions least susceptible to automation include various jobs in medicine and psychology, as well as coaches, social workers, programmers, engineers, representatives of higher management and creative professionals.

In other words, those whose work requires a creative approach and is not limited to the performance of predictable combinations will be best prepared to deal with the new reality. If we were to speak of engineers in this regard, it would have to be clarified that design engineers are generally safe, while operating engineers, on the contrary, are at risk.

Three key factors are keeping automation away from the creative professions. To successfully perform their tasks, artificial intelligence must possess intuition and an ability to manipulate material objects (touch) and make use of creative and social intelligence. Technology at its current level of development does not actually allow for the resolution of these problems. However, as strong AI continues to develop, the range of jobs available to it will invariably increase as well. It will expand the limits of automation that have already been achieved with existing technologies and will make it possible for computers to make managerial decisions and even, perhaps, engage in creative activity. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that in the medium or long term, machines might successfully replace writers and artists along with engineers and managers. Furthermore, precedents do exist for AI’s successfully composing literary texts.

Thus, it is quite conceivable that the majority of the labour force will find itself back in school in the foreseeable future. The problem, however, is that no one really knows what to study. It has been estimated, that as many as 85% of the professions that will be in demand in 2030 do not yet exist. Even in developed countries, the education systems have yet to adapt to the new reality.

What will become of our country and of us?

Today, most researchers have little doubt that developed countries will successfully adapt to the changes coming one way or another (which does not rule out the possibility of social tension and growth in income inequality). New technologies could help create additional jobs to replace those that have been lost, as it was not long ago following the rapid development of the Internet. It is assumed that the new professions will be more creative and better paid.

A new balance will gradually be established in the labour market. The nature of manufacturing will also change. The development of automation and 3D printing will make it possible to create efficient local production facilities focused on the specific needs of consumers. This will facilitate the return of a part of production from developing countries to developed (so-called reshoring).

In turn, the consequences of automation could be much more negative for countries of the third world. The percentage of non-skilled jobs in developing countries decreased by 8% between 1995 and 2012. Reshoring could significantly accelerate this process in the short term. Since the proportion of people engaged in low-skilled work in low and middle-income countries is much higher, the growth of unemployment would threaten to become a major global problem. The situation would be further aggravated by the underdevelopment of labour protection institutions in these countries.

It must be noted that risks of this sort are endemic to Russia as well. Despite the significantly higher level of education of its citizens in comparison to that in developing countries, the Russian economy could hardly be called high-tech. A significant part of the working population is engaged in routine low-skilled labour, and productivity remains low as well. At the present time, Russia lags significantly behind other developed countries in regards to this indicator (and behind the US by more than 100%), and according to some estimates falls below the world average. What’s more, factory jobs are not the only ones at stake – an army of many millions of bureaucrats and clerks is also under threat of redundancy as a result of digitalization.

Another disaster waiting to happen to the Russian economy is related to outdated industry and the decline of domestic engineering. At present, institutions of higher education produce mainly operational engineers trained to maintain tools and machines. What’s more, even the limited innovative potential of Russian engineers is not needed by Russian industry.

Furthermore, it cannot be ruled out that in the near future Russia will launch a massive programme to introduce robotic automation and artificial intelligence. All the more since it fits in perfectly with the desire to modernize and digitalize the national economy repeatedly spoken of by the Russian leadership. Because of the lack of a strong trade union movement and the prevalence of hybrid and grey forms of employment, labour automation could lead to much more severe social consequences in Russia than in Western countries. Finally, it is entirely possible that the catch-me-if-you-can nature of such modernization will result in Russia introducing more primitive technologies than in more developed countries. Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine and RIAC Member Fyodor Lukyanov cleverly described a similar scenario in his article.

Saving the Rank and File

Ways to reduce the social consequences of labour automation have long been at the heart discussions surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the development of AI. The Robot Tax is one measure being considered. Microsoft Founder Bill Gates supports the idea and has proposed collecting income tax and social payments on robot labour to slow down the pace of automation. “Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” he declared in an interview for the Internet publication Quartz. It is his opinion that the funds received from payments of this sort should be used by governments to create social security systems for those who have lost their jobs as a result of automation.

The first country to resort to this measure is South Korea, which introduced an indirect tax on robots in August 2017. The European Union also discussed the introduction of a similar tax, though the clause proposed by Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Representative Mady Delvaux was rejected by the European Parliament was rejected by the European Parliament because it could slow the development of innovations. At the same time, the parliament approved the resolution itself, which calls for granting robots the status of legal entities.

A universal basic income could also soften the effect of rising unemployment and inequality. Elon Musk supports the initiative together with numerous other businessmen and experts. At the same time, a lack of work to afford one the opportunity to fulfil one’s potential poses a significant social risk. Significant unemployment, even in the absence of poverty, can contribute to the marginalization of the population and the growth of crime – the first jobs to go are those of low-skilled employees, who are unlikely to spend all of their permanent free time engaged in yoga and self-improvement activities.

Possible ways of mitigating the consequences of the upcoming restructuring of the world economy include a change in the nature of employment. Technological changes and expanding access to the Internet allow more and more people to work remotely. Thus, some of those who lose their jobs will be able to find themselves a place in the new economy without having to change their place of residence.

Some believe that automation will increase and not reduce the total number of jobs by accelerating the pace of economic development over the long term. Amazon is one example of how automation has not resulted in staff reduction. While increasing the number of robots employed in its warehouses from 1,400 to 45,000, it has managed to retain the same number of jobs. It has also been noted that automation is becoming increasingly necessary due to a decrease in the working-age population (primarily in developed countries).

It should be noted that these measures are all limited in nature and hardly correspond to the scale of changes that stand to be swept in by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To avoid mass unemployment and social instability, governments must develop comprehensive short-term strategies for adapting the population to the new reality. It is very likely that new programs will be needed to retrain citizens en masse for new professions.

Russia is no exception here; on the contrary, it is of vital importance that our country reform its education system in the near future, especially as regards technical education. It is equally important to develop targeted support programs for those parts of the population that are most vulnerable to automation and digitalization. Moreover, it would seem advisable to make use of existing experience to mitigate the social consequences of factory closures in Russian single-industry towns. If we continue to move as sluggishly as we are moving at present, we risk turning into a kind of reserve for yesterday’s technologies with a population becoming ever more rapidly marginalized.

First published in our partner RIAC

[1] Marsh, P. The New Industrial Revolution. Consumers, Globalization, and the End of Mass Production. M.: Gaidar Institute Press, 2015.

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