BT boss under fire after telling staff: Accept AI will take your job

  • BT said tech chief Harmeen Mehta was using a metaphor to ‘stretch a point’

A BT boss has come under fire from unions for saying staff should accept being replaced by artificial intelligence because horses ‘didn’t complain’ when the car was invented.

BT said tech chief Harmeen Mehta was using a metaphor to ‘stretch a point’.

Ms Mehta told a business website: ‘I don’t know how horses felt when the car was invented, but they didn’t complain that they were put out of a job, they didn’t go on strike.

‘It’s part of evolution. Some jobs will change, some new ones will be created and some will no longer be needed.’

She said people should tell themselves to ‘wake up, reinvent yourself and get ready’ in the face of technological advances.

BT said tech chief Harmeen Mehta was using a metaphor to 'stretch a point' (File Photo)

Rishi Sunak listens holding the closing press conference at the AI safety summit at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire on November 2, 2023

She added: ‘Why is it my job to make every person in the company relevant for the future? It’s their responsibility to put themselves on the map and mine to create an opportunity for them to do that. It takes two to tango.’

However, the increasing role of AI at BT has partly been blamed for the forecast loss of 55,000 jobs by 2030. In May, outgoing chief executive Philip Jansen said BT would rely on a much smaller workforce and significantly lower costs by the end of this decade thanks to a ‘rolling programme’ of job cuts.

Ms Mehta, who says she wants to ‘shake up’ BT, appeared to agree that job losses were inevitable.

She said: ‘Every job that exists today won’t exist in exactly the same form in the future. The people who reskill themselves will have jobs, at this company or another, while those who don’t might not. That is simply part of the evolution of society.’

However, the Communication Workers Union told The Guardian that ‘the intelligence of workers, who just want a serious discussion on AI which respects their concerns and ensures there is reasonable protection for them… should not be denigrated by people in positions of corporate seniority’.

BT said: ‘Harmeen was using a metaphor to stretch a point.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talks with Tesla CEO Elon Musk during AI Safety Summit in Bletchley Park, on November 2, 2023

‘In the past, during periods of technological change, people acquired new skills and ultimately new jobs were created. This is something we are keen to enable as we embrace human and artificial intelligence working alongside each other.

‘We will work closely with our union partners in this AI transition.’

BT said it would add new skills to its training programme ‘to ensure we bring our colleagues up to speed to take advantage of the technological revolution and place them at the forefront of this new AI age’. 

Following the world’s first summit on the future of AI this month, set up by Rishi Sunak and held at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, the Prime Minister interviewed tech billionaire Elon Musk, who told him AI would make human labour obsolete.

He added: ‘We are seeing the most disruptive force in history here – something for the first time that is smarter than the smartest human.

‘There will come a point where no job is needed.’

But Mr Sunak said: ‘Work is a good thing. It gives people purpose.’


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