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The only AI ‘regulation’ coming is from workers [Video]

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When a new technology ushers in the potential for widespread job eliminations, who has time to wait for government guardrails? Especially if rules are coming.

For decades advocates have clamored for greater transparency and privacy protections from the data harvesting machinery of social media. Those calls have only recently led to a shift in the laissez-faire approach to regulating what feels like a lawless internet.

But Wall Street and VC money have already moved on from the social web. Did somebody say AI? By the time the government gets serious about ground rules, the next tech reset has arrived. It’s why “move fast and break things” worked so well.

This time, workers are already at the front line of securing protections against the rush of new automation tools.

In the latest generation-defining tech disruption, the labor movement is setting boundaries in a welcome correction and lesson from the failures and dysfunctions of the social web era.

“Unions are a tool for protections where there is a lack of federal oversight and laws,” said Margaret Poydock, a senior policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

While some of AI’s boosters insist that muscular government action is poorly adapted to grapple with swiftly evolving technology, real-world harms are already unfolding. And so is union pushback.

Perhaps the most prominent example comes from Hollywood. Entertainment workers secured provisions in their new contract that bar studios from using AI to write or rewrite literary material and set other protections around disclosure and the use of writers’ material to train AI.

The need for worker protections is already evident in early cases of corporate abuses. Earlier this month, the Arena Group, the publisher of Sports Illustrated, fired its CEO following an editorial scandal over the exploitation of synthetic content. Sports Illustrated had been publishing commerce articles “written” by nonexistent authors whose profile pictures were computer generated, the media outlet Futurism revealed.

The Sports Illustrated Union said it was “horrified” by the Futurism report.

“We deplore being associated with something so disrespectful to our readers,” the union said, signing the statement as the “Humans of the SI Union.” “We demand the company commit to adhering to basic journalistic standards, including not publishing computer-written stories by fake people.”

Last week Microsoft (MSFT) and the AFL-CIO union federation announced a partnership to navigate labor issues tied to the advancement of AI. Technologists will share developments in the field with workers as part of the agreement and seek their input as they develop AI in the workplace.

“It’s not about trying to stop or stifle anything, but making sure there are guardrails that keep people safe,” said Conor O’Donnell, a software tester at Microsoft-owned video game studio ZeniMax, whose workers voted to form a union — a first in the US for the tech giant.

O’Donnell is working to negotiate specific terms of the contract as a member of the bargaining committee at ZeniMax Workers United-CWA. The union and Microsoft have already agreed to language that would give workers a means to address how AI is deployed at the company.

That the broad use of AI is still in its emergent phase may seem like a reason to keep from placing restrictions on the technology. But workers say the newness of it all is why guidelines are crucial.

“If something new were to come up that we specifically hadn’t thought of yet, we will still have a voice in dealing with it,” O’Donnell said.

Hamza Shaban is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering markets and the economy. Follow Hamza on Twitter @hshaban.

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