Artificial intelligence and the workplace in Germany

Posted in Employment

These days especially in view of “Arbeiten 4.0”, the so called fourth industrial revolution in Germany, digitisation pervades the whole working world and is reflected in a vast number of different phenomena. As one of them, artificial intelligence can complement – and in some cases even replace – manpower, as we can see in the automotive industry. Yet the commitment is no longer limited to pure routine activities: AI can just as well assume employer’s responsibilities for example by giving automated instructions to employees. Therefore, digital changes also affect highly qualified positions, scientists and management – all of which felt secure from risks to their job continuity until now.

Even though the digitisation trend has reached new heights, according to different studies a lot of German corporations still dispense with an accurately defined digitisation strategy. The slow progress of legislation for standardised data communication and interaction between machines, sensors and products has not helped. Especially the safety of “intelligent” factories and products causes worries in German companies. So far the German legislator has not yet set special legal provisions on the required quality or the launch of artificial intelligence. That means these areas are only regulated by general provisions e.g. the Betriebssicherheitsverordnung (German Ordinance on Industrial Safety and Health) or regulations on product safety.

Assuming autonomous actions only by humans, German law is not prepared for autonomous systems and in particular civil liability of artificial intelligence is an issue. Damage claims cannot be asserted against AI as it is not defined as a legal entity. Lacking the deliberate control of their own actions, robots and artificial intelligence can neither act for companies as „Erfüllungsgehilfen“ (vicarious agents) and their “fault” cannot be attributed to companies according to § 278 BGB (German Civil Code). There are different approaches to create a liability system regarding AI e.g. by compulsory insurances for owners or by transmitting the principles of the strict liability but as long as there are no special liability concepts it is necessary to revert to the existing German liability law. Unfortunately it is often imprecise to determine the contribution of persons being responsible for robots and artificial intelligence regarding the causation of damages.

Apart from liability issues, AI raise questions in the areas of protection against dismissal and co-determination in companies. According to experts the automation of the working world can affect more than half of the existing workplaces in Germany in the medium and long term. It still requires political organisation and constitutional framing to strike a new balance between the affected interests. Even though digital progress and development is necessary to keep a high level of competitiveness and AI creates new perspectives and possibilities at the workplace, they meet their limits (amongst others) at their non-existent autonomous decision making and should be treated with intelligent caution.

Changing the working functions requires both technical input as well as the consideration of cultural aspects. A fundamental digital shift affects all hierarchy levels in the working environment and therefore requires a critical review of roles, functions, hierarchies and values in the corporations. If AI is able to replace management boards and executive leaderships it will raise an open question: Will the responsible organs come to a decision that may lead to the loss of their own power and status?

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