Does artificial intelligence (AI) mean that the workplace will look very different in the future for many people? In our working lives, will we become a mere appendage for the intelligent machines who make decisions for us? “Currently, we are confronted everywhere with future scenarios about how AI will change the working world. Most of these prophesy revolutionary upheavals,” says Oliver Giering, research associate at the Chair of Sociology of Working Worlds’ Digitalization at TU Berlin. However, there is surprisingly little research on current use of AI in companies and public institutions and the changes it has brought with it.
“The question as to whether it changes anything regarding the autonomy of workers is key in assessing the consequences of the use of AI,” Giering explains. “We know from other studies that satisfaction in the workplace and mental wellbeing are strongly linked to our personal freedom to make decisions.” As a result, Giering has joined forces in a cooperation project with the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), the largest and longest-running multidisciplinary long-term study in Germany. Located in Berlin, the SOEP is part of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) and conducts regular interviews with 30,000 people, half of whom are employed. Around 800 of these have now been interviewed in a first, representative preliminary study – with remarkable results.
“The first difficulty was that we couldn’t simply ask working people if they had already had any contact with AI,” explains Giering. The reason being that the abundance of future scenarios means that the term “AI” is too strongly loaded with unrealistic ideas. Instead, they were asked about programs that, for example, automatically recognize speech, process images independently or automatically answer technical questions. The survey also asked which electronic tools they use at work, such as laptops, scanners or robots, and their profession and position. Additionally, the survey asked whether they can determine their own pace of work, or the sequence in which they process tasks, as well as other issues for measuring the level of autonomy at work.