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Can AI guide a safe and smart return to the workplace?

Filed on September 15, 2021

By Hossam Seif El Din, IBM General Manager for the Middle East and Pakistan

As recovery from COVID-19 continues, leaders in the Middle East are heavily discussing if, when and how to bring employees safely back into the workplace. Whether a company decides to open in a limited capacity or opt for a more permanent hybrid working model, the impact of AI on our work lives could take on new implications, giving the transparency and trustworthiness of AI-based applications profound new relevance, particularly for employees who are gearing up for the return to work.

A recent market research commissioned by IBM found that almost one-third of IT professionals surveyed globally say their business is now using AI, with 43% reporting that their company has accelerated their rollout of AI as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today companies in the Middle East are starting to see the major benefit of AI for their operations: its ability to automate routine tasks and free up time for employees to engage with other challenges.

So how AI can take on a pivotal new role in the workplace?

With the new urgency of worker safety, AI can be used to gather data in real-time and provide actionable insights that could help organizations perform countless essential tasks such as defining new protocols for employees, imposing social distancing, enabling contact tracing and mapping seating arrangements. Employees may even begin interacting directly with AI daily, as companies look to resources like chatbots to help people accomplish simple tasks like booking rooms or deciding the best time to get lunch.

The problem is, even the smartest AI is useless if you can’t trust what it’s telling you. That’s why these powerful tools for workplace return should be governed by a sound ethical framework to ensure they help mediate a return to work without infringing on employee data rights or privacy. In bringing AI to bear on the challenge of workplace reentry, organizations must act in ways that foster consumer trust. Though it’s understandable why organizations might want to cast the widest possible net in gathering data, it is critical these efforts must be done in a way that is consistent with privacy rights and expectations.

The stakes of getting this right are high. Employees want the ability to plan proactively, to reserve spaces and find the information they need quickly. AI can help enable that preparedness, but it must be carried out by companies committed to the responsible stewardship of data and technology.

For example, IBM’s mandates explainability for AI systems, so that consumers understand what data is collected and how it is used. It also argues that data and the insights gathered should always belong to the owner, that is, the person the data and insights are about. And it also holds that technology like AI must always be used in ways that are lawful, fair, inclusive, and non-discriminatory. As new solutions to protect worker safety are deployed in the field, guardrails like these should be backed into the solution’s very foundation, down to the ways information is stored or how long it is maintained.

For most organizations, the good news is that robust workplace controls do not need to come at the expense of employee privacy. Innovative platforms can help conclude information by tapping into the wealth of anonymized data generated by computers, routers and numerous other endpoints present in practically any workplace for the purposes of helping manage workspaces. In other words, there are many ways to monitor occupancy without necessarily monitoring individual people.

These techniques can all be designed to maintain workplace protocols without harvesting personal information. To the contrary, these techniques can also help employers and their employees plan, so that interventions aren’t needed in the first place. By using innovation to ethically adapt to this new normal, we will confront the challenges of this pandemic and accomplish what matters most: recovering as a society.

In conclusion, looking ahead to AI possible technology applications that will guide a safe return to the workplace, preserving society’s trust in technology is critical. Enterprises in our region can count on IBM to continue bringing the best of our technology and expertise into the fight as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

This content comes from KT Engage, the brand marketing unit of Khaleej Times.