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The White House Launches Probe into Companies’ Use of AI to Monitor and Manage Workers

The White House has initiated a probe into the use of artificial intelligence (AI) by companies to monitor and manage workers. According to the Biden Administration, these practices are increasingly prevalent and can result in significant harm. Deputies from the White House Domestic Policy Council and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy wrote in a blog post that these technologies, while beneficial in some cases, can also create serious risks to workers.

The officials, Deputy Assistant to the President for Racial Justice and Equity Jenny Yang and Deputy US Chief Technology Officer Deirdre Mulligan, said in the post that the constant tracking of performance can push workers to move too fast on the job, posing risks to their safety and mental health. They also noted that using technology to monitor workers’ conversations can deter them from exercising their right to organize, and AI can fuel discrimination in pay and discipline.

The White House’s forthcoming request for information, which was reviewed by Bloomberg, cites media reports on the ways surveillance technology has been deployed in sectors throughout the US economy. Among the uses: monitoring truckers’ eye movements, documenting the speed at which fast-food workers prepare meals, assessing the emotional state of customers while on the phone with call-center staff, tracking the movements of nurses via radio frequency identification tags in their ID badges, and taking automated screenshots of copywriters’ computers.

The request seeks input from workers, employers, developers, researchers, and advocacy groups regarding the uses and effects of workplace surveillance tech, including “economic, safety, physical, mental, and emotional impacts.” The administration also wants to know what regulations, enforcement activity, or other strategies the government should explore to address them. The document makes clear that its inquiry covers gig workers classified as “independent contractors,” as well as traditional employees.

Lawmakers and advocates around the country have been turning increasing attention to how companies use tech to control their workforces. Last week, the Minnesota state house passed a bill that would require companies such as Amazon.com Inc. to provide warehouse workers with copies of data they collected on their pace of work. California and New York have passed similar legislation regulating warehouse productivity quotas in the past couple of years.

In a letter last year, US Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, urged the federal Labor Department to start regulating “the largely unchecked spread of invasive and exploitative workplace surveillance and technologies.” Casey cited news reports including a 2021 Bloomberg article detailing complaints from Amazon contract delivery drivers, who said performance-tracking algorithms unfairly penalized and even terminated them while ignoring real-world hurdles such as traffic jams and locked apartment complexes.

In their forthcoming blog post, Yang and Mulligan wrote that gathering information on surveillance and monitoring technology would help promote “fair and equitable workplaces,” advance racial equity, and ensure “workers are treated with respect and dignity, and have the opportunity to form and join unions.”

Overall, the White House’s investigation into AI’s role in managing and surveilling workers is an important step towards understanding the potential harms that come with these technologies. By collecting input from a variety of stakeholders, the administration can develop policies and regulations that protect workers’ rights and safety while still allowing employers to utilize the benefits of AI.

Mr. Michael Afton

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