Rudimentary forms of surveillance have always been around, and we’ve been familiar with CCTV camera monitoring for several decades. We expect to be monitored, at least to some degree, in our workplaces.
But the world of surveillance technology is about to get a facelift, thanks in part to the accelerated development of artificial intelligence. We’re about to see more advanced, less expensive, and more prevalent types of surveillance equipment in our daily life—so how could this change the American workplace?
Examples of AI surveillance
Let’s start by recapping a few of the technologies that could play a part in influencing these future developments:
Utilizing an AI-driven digital assistant named Ella, IC Realtime has emerged as a platform designed to help consumers and business owners easily search through recorded footage. Accepting natural-language queries, much like the web-based search engines to which we’re accustomed, IC Realtime can help you find specific objects, people, and events in a matter of seconds.
Taking things to the next level, some countries are already starting to adopt technology with the capacity for facial recognition. In China, for example, facial recognition glasses and monitors have been able to identify 26 people using fake IDs, seven of whom were connected to major crimes.
Communication tracking and analysis
Surveillance isn’t all about video. Some new surveillance technologies are all about monitoring the communications and activities of individuals, especially employees. Email analytics tools, for example, have emerged to help companies collect data on how their employees are emailing regularly, including how many emails they send, how they send them, and how much time they spend on email in general.
So what effects could these new surveillance technologies have on the workplace?
Improved surveillance could feasibly make a workplace environment safer. While it’s a hotly contested idea politically, there’s limited concrete evidence that increased surveillance could reduce crime rates. Increased surveillance might deter some crime, but the smartest criminals will find ways to dupe even the most advanced system. Accordingly, it’s likely that workplaces with AI-driven surveillance could help protect employees from robberies and other crimes, and protect employers from employee theft and other issues. Ultimately, this could lead to a safer, more profitable workplace.
It’s also been noted that increased surveillance could increase productivity, as at least one scientific study has found a correlation between surveillance and productivity in a restaurant environment. The idea is that if employees know they’re being watched, they’ll be willing to work harder. However, it’s not clear exactly why this effect exists; on top of that, the term “productivity” is often vaguely defined. Employees might stay in motion longer when they’re being watched, but are they as creative? Or as passionate about their work? AI-driven surveillance could exacerbate all productivity-related effects, positive or negative.
Privacy and legal rights
AI surveillance could also present issues concerning privacy and employees’ legal rights. Currently, employers are allowed to monitor their employees in the majority of situations, as long as they disclose that monitoring upfront. The rules could change with more advanced systems, which might be able to monitor employees in more invasive and personal ways. Matters get even more complicated when AI-driven surveillance develops the potential to discriminate against certain employees; for example, an employee with a disability may be interpreted as working less efficiently as an able-bodied one by monitoring systems designed to detect productivity.
Paranoia and morale
Finally, don’t forget about the subjective effect that monitoring systems can have. Merely knowing that they’re being watched more intently can make employees feel paranoid and less connected to their workplace on a personal level. If they’re seen by a machine as a unit of operation, and not by a person as another person, they may feel dehumanized and less motivated to work. Ultimately, this can lead to higher employee stress and turnover.
Pace of change
Many of these effects rely on an underlying assumption: that surveillance technology will continue developing and companies will start to adopt it. But just how fast could these changes manifest? Obviously, there are some forms of advanced AI surveillance available today, but they’re beyond the buying power and above the interest of most companies in the United States.
One of the hallmarks of AI (and tech in general) is its blistering potential for advancement. It’s likely that the cost-efficiency, practicality, and availability of AI surveillance will grow at an accelerated pace, becoming mainstream in a few years—or even less. The real question is whether or not a given company will want to adopt it, and that will all depend on their budget, their goals, and their opinions on the ethics of such a system.
AI-driven surveillance will continue to grow more advanced, and unabatedly, even if the timeline does remain fuzzy. But as more companies start to realize the benefits and cost-efficiency of these systems, they’ll start to be adopted in greater numbers, and employees will start seeing the positive and negative benefits alike. If your workplace hasn’t yet adopted a high-tech surveillance system yet, expect them to in the next decade.