The Fourth Industrial Revolution as touted by tech pundits is expected to usher in an era where artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will significantly change every aspect of human life. The idea of a machine that will be able to think and act like humans, provoked by A. M. Turing's popular 1950 essay titled 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence", where he posed the question: "Can machines think?", has been the obsession of computer experts/researchers. The ultimate goal is to make computers that learn like a child. The concomitant effect of this is that robots are being programmed to learn by simple algorithm and to carry out cognitive tasks. Thus, many tasks in diverse fields are now subject to Robotic Process Automation (RPA). The deployment of intelligent machines to the world to work is no exception; a welcome development to employers in the drive for greater profitability, albeit a kickstart in what looks to be an endless contest between employees and their new robotic rivals.
Evidently, the future where robotic workers will cause a structural change in the nature, pattern and availability of jobs is here, maybe even earlier than anticipated. The New York Times reports that since 2014, Amazon has deployed over 100,000 robotic Arms to its centres around the world. In 2017, Alibaba, the largest retail shop in Asia, deployed sixty Greet+ robots which carried out 70% of tasks in its warehouses. According to a World Economic Forum publication, by May 2018, Shenzhen Evenwin Precision Technology, a manufacturing company based in China, would have replaced 90% of its 1, 800 employees with machines; this being its aim. The advent of robotic/AI driven cars/taxis also comes to mind.
The trend is unlikely to stop or even slow down. The Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, at the Closing Ceremony of the 50th Anniversary Celebrations and Annual Conference of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPM) late last year, raised a concern over this growing threat, noting that technology is redefining the structure of industry and commerce, and the skills required to function in them. From the way services are secured and solutions garnered these days, and the use of apps and AI Chatbots (such as Diamond Bank's Ada), it can be said the words/concerns of the Vice President are not overreaching.
It is difficult to forget the slow but sure advents of paralegals. KPMG reports that it might "sound like science fiction but sophisticated AI like this is already in place at legal firms and is very close indeed for tax." With the advantage of speed, accuracy and lower cost of maintenance, the preference for machines indeed poses a threat to job availability for human workers. However, what would appear to be a loss to the worker, may be a gain to the employer, with AI deployment having little or no regulatory infraction.
The above considered, where should the law stand, especially in a developing nation like Nigeria, in creating a balance between the rights and obligations of the employer and the seemingly vulnerable human employee in what seems certain to be an increasingly AI dominated future?
The preference for machines over humans will effectively necessitate layoffs. An example that quickly comes to mind was the technological unemployment caused by electronic/mobile banking, Automated Teller Machines and other sophisticated banking methods in the Nigerian banking industry. Undoubtedly, in integrating robots into the workplace, employers will be faced with the dilemma of choosing between their human workers and the robots. It is likely that the employer will lean in favour of the robots for several reasons, considering that robots would free the employer from salaries, obligations, regulatory remittances, benefits/allowances, leave days, etc.
In a possible bid to hastily replace human workers with robots, employers might be tempted to throw caution to the wind and implement mass layoffs without complying with procedure(s) laid down in the respective employment contracts, handbooks/policies and laws. This would be unwise for reasons that will be shortly expounded. Declarations of redundancies may also be in the cards, as the law permits employers to declare a redundancy where it is manifest that there is an 'excess' of manpower. However, the power of the employer to declare an employee redundant is not unfettered and as such, it is imperative that the employer abides by its duty to comply with the provisions of the prevalent Labour Act/regulations, policies and terms of contract.
Where a redundancy is to be declared, the Nigerian Labour Act makes it mandatory for the employer to notify the Trade Union or workers' representation concerned of the reasons for and the extent of the anticipated redundancy; in some industries, consent must be secured from the regulator before proceeding with the redundancy process. Also, the rile of laying off workers in the order of their date of employment, popularly known as 'last in, first out', and the negotiation with, and payment of severance packages to the employee are procedural steps which the employer must take. The employer may be liable in damages for not complying with these provisions of the Act.
A further consideration is the likely attitude of the National Industrial Courts (NIC) on matters of redundancy induced by preference for machine workers in the future. In some quarters, it is believed that the NIC's usual application of international best practices and stance against unfair labour practices, may predispose the court to adopt the protectionist posture of the International Labour Organisation in favour of human workers. A more detailed review of the rationale for the court's decisions would however suggest that this outcome is unlikely at best. The NIC has tended to adopt a very fact-based approach to judicial determination in recent times. As such, it is more likely that the NIC would consider each case based on the peculiar facts before it; for example, whether the employer was justified to subject the employee to redundancy. Therefore, even in revisiting the employment portfolio for business interest reasons, the employer must be seen to abide by the applicable regulations and internal policies in order to avoid unpleasant and potentially unfavourable litigation.
For a bit of context, it can be helpful to consider some examples of the jurisprudence on this subject matter in some foreign jurisdictions. In the Australian case of Joe Solari v RLA Polymers Pty Ltd (U2010/5787), the court upheld the redundancy of a worker because of his inability to cope with the operational reorganisation of his work plant. Also, in Packman v Fauchon  UKEAT/0017/12, an English Court held that subjecting a worker to a redundancy due to the employer's adoption of accounting software technology was not unfair in the circumstance. Thus, it seems that without an infraction of the provision of the labour laws on redundancy, employees displaced because of adoption of better technologies may not successfully challenge their redundancy.
There are different schools of thoughts about deployment of robots into the labour market. While the positive theorists believe that AI will not necessarily create unemployment but will cause a structural shirt in the nature and dynamics of labour in the future, the realists believe that AI will adversely affect the nature of jobs that will be available to humans, as it might result in the workplace survival of only those persons who have the requisite skills to interact with and operate computers and use the internet.
A unifying point is that the AI revolution will disrupt labour practices and workplace norms. In a bid to prepare for these disruptions, employees must make sure to specialize in areas that are, to some degree, practically irreplaceable by AI. The government, as with the courts, must also recognize its role in maintaining the balance between the rights of the employer and the employee, whilst permitting positive business advancements by the employer. For example, government may have to consider making legislations which would require employers to maintain a quota of human employees, whilst permitting the influx of AI robots. Also, it may create tax incentives for employers meeting a defined quota of human employees. The definition of 'redundancy' must also be revisited to consider nuances of the new workplace paradigm.
The Regulators should also have the additional duty to ensure that the influx of robotic workers into the country is regulated and necessary at each point. The scope of statutory responsibilities of the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP) in Nigeria for example, under the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion Act, may have to be expanded to include oversight on importation of robotic workers so that Nigeria will not become a dumping site for hazardous or marauding robots.
As already alluded one of the major effects of the deployment of robotic workers is the structural shift from the demand for the traditional white/blue collar worker to a 'new worker'. A greater emphasis will be placed on 'technological' skill as against a formal university education; both however providing an advantage. There will therefore be a need to revisit even school curriculums, to impart skills that make them even more employable. As coined in the letter of the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, to the then president-elect the United States, Donald Trump, greater focus must be placed to secure training for technological roles such "cloud computing, technicians, database managers, cybersecurity analysts, user interface designers, and other assorted IT roles." Employers will also do well to make policy directives that help track and attract workers with skills relevant to emerging realities orchestrated by disruptive technologies.
The fierce competition that intelligent machine workers will bring to the world of work will be unprecedented. As in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when the use of machines gave farmers amenable to change an 'undue' advantage over others that stuck to their crude implements, it is expected that there will be some employers/employees who will prepare to be innovative and in so doing, will remain relevant and poised to take advantage of the opportunities AI presents. There is however likely to be a gap far greater than that seen in the Industrial Revolution.
As Larry Boyer once said, "the key to successfully navigating the Fourth Industrial Revolution is more than simply learning new skills. It is knowing yourself and the unique value you have to offer any potential customer or employer." Thus, re-training, restructuring and rebranding are activities that are key to preparing for this revolution. Regulations, legal structures and laws must also be revisited to prepare the playing field and protect what each nation stands for. The AI revolution is here and cannot be overlooked. It must therefore be holistically and cautiously prepared for.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.