Can you be fired if artificial intelligence can do your job?

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Social media has been flooded with chatter about the chatbot phenomenon ChatGPT which seems destined to be able to, if not far better do, what humans can! So, what does this mean for employees? Can you be replaced by a bot like ChatGPT? In this article, we take a closer look at what this could mean for employees in the not-so-distant future.

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot which can not only assimilate vast quantities of data and provide startlingly accurate information and insights but can also assist with a range of tasks such as creating graphics, answering questions and composing music, tasks to date perceived to fall squarely within the capabilities of humans only.

However, with a bot like ChatGPT passing the final exam for the MBA programme in research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, questions start abounding about whether the ‘reserved for humans only’ abilities, are still so reserved, and if no longer, what this means for humankind?

ChatGPT  can perform and ‘automate’ skills possessed by paid workers owing to its advanced knowledge and ability to produce human-like answers. Have a query on your mind? Simply insert the query and ChatGPT has you covered, in many cases more comprehensively than your average person would or could do.

Like with any new technology, there are concerns, especially regarding the accuracy of the answers it provides and intensive research is being conducted into the model. However, without a doubt, the impact and potential of ChatGPT have been felt and businesses are already planning to integrate the functionality of a bot like ChatGPT into their workplace. And why not, you may ask. It’s highly accurate, works at the speed of light, and provides amazingly accurate responses to complex tasks.

On the flip side, it also means that many of the jobs which an AI bot may replace and currently performed by humans, will be rendered obsolete by this new technology. Think of financial, media, legal and other industries heavily reliant on data and its assimilation. An AI bot could do the data crunching of hundreds of lawyers or produce news content to replace a regiment of journalists.

Such a reality, which seems likely given the apparent capabilities of ChatGPT, will potentially render redundant certain categories of employees, now to be performed by AI. But what will happen to employees in positions now rendered redundant? Can the employer just fire them?

So, “no” the employer cannot just fire them, but “yes” these employees could be retrenched and in such a manner lose their jobs. In South Africa, this would mean that the employer would have to follow the retrenchment procedures as set out in the Labour Relations Act. Nevertheless, such employees may be facing unemployment because of AI.

According to our labour laws, retrenchment processes can be undertaken when an employer due to the economic, structural or other needs of the business contemplates laying off employees. Such needs can include the introduction of new technologies capable of performing tasks which would otherwise be performed by an ordinary human employee.

To give credence to this threat, various tech companies around the world such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google have laid off employees due to the developments in the technology industry. Microsoft is currently in the process of laying off thousands of its employees as it invests billions in AI.

As much as AI is unlikely to be an immediate threat to South African jobs, notice must be taken of these developments to ensure that both employer and employee alike are prepared for a future that heralds an increasing prevalence of AI in all facets of our lives.

This article is the personal opinion/view of the author(s) and is not necessarily that of the firm. The content is provided for information only and should not be seen as an exact or complete exposition of the law. Accordingly, no reliance should be placed on the content for any reason whatsoever and no action should be taken on the basis thereof unless its application and accuracy have been confirmed by a legal advisor. The firm and author(s) cannot be held liable for any prejudice or damage resulting from action taken based on this content without further written confirmation by the author(s). 

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